or UNTIL DEATH US DO PART
By AUGUSTA EVANS WILSON
(Augusta J. Evans)
Author of "Beulah," "Macaria," "Infelice," "St. Elmo," "Inez," etc., etc.,
"There is nothing a man knows, in grief or in sin half so bitter as to think, what I might have been."
A. L. BURT COMPANY, PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1869, by GEORGE W. CARLETON, In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1897, by MRS. AUGUSTA J. EVANS WILSON, In the office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington, D.C.
TO THE HONORED MEMORY OF MY
WHOSE DEATH HAS RETARDED THE COMPLETION OF A WORK WHICH, IN THE BEGINNING, WAS BLESSED WITH HIS APPROVAL,
I REVERENTLY DEDICATE THIS BOOK.
"Every man has his own style, as he has his own nose; and it is neither polite nor Christian to rally an honest man about his nose, however singular it may be. How can I help it that my style is not different? That there is no affectation in it, I am very certain."
"Yea, I take myself to witness, That I have loved no darkness, Sophisticated no truth, Nursed no delusion, Allowed no fear."
UNTIL DEATH US DO PART.
"I can hear the sullen, savage roar of the breakers, if I do not see them, and my pretty painted bark—expectation—is bearing down helplessly upon them. Perhaps the unwelcome will not come to-day. What then? I presume I should not care; and yet, I am curious to see him,—anxious to know what sort of person will henceforth rule the house, and go in and out here as master. Of course the pleasant, peaceful days are at an end, for men always make din and strife in a household,—at least my father did, and he is the only one I know much about. But, after all, why borrow trouble?—the interloper may never come."
The girl stood on tip-toe, shading her eyes with one hand, and peering eagerly down the winding road which stretched at right angles to the avenue, and over the hills, on towards the neighboring town. No moving speck was visible; and, with a sigh of relief, she sank back on the grassy mound and resumed the perusal of her book. Above and around her spread the wide branches of an aged apple-tree, feathered thickly with pearly petals, which the wind tossed hither and thither and drifted over the bermuda, as restless tides strew pink-chambered shells on sloping strands; and down through the flowery limbs streamed the waning March sun, throwing grotesque shadows on the sward and golden ripples over the face and figure of the young lounger. A few yards distant a row of whitewashed bee-hives extended along the western side of the garden-wall, where perched a peacock whose rainbow hues were burnished by the slanting rays that smote like flame the narrow pane of glass which constituted a window in each hive and permitted investigation of the tireless workers within. The afternoon was almost spent; the air, losing its balmy noon breath, grew chill with the approach of dew, and the figure under the apple-tree shivered slightly, and, closing her book, drew her scarlet shawl around her shoulders and leaned her dimpled chin on her knee.
Sixteen years had ripened and rounded the girlish form, and given to her countenance that indefinable charm which marks the timid hovering between careless, frolicsome youth, and calmly conscious womanhood; while perfect health rouged the polished cheeks and vermillioned the thin lips, whose outlines sharply indexed more of decision than amiability of character.
There were hints of brown in the heavy mass of waveless dusky hair, that was elaborately braided and coiled around the well turned head, and certain amber rays suggestive of topaz and gold flashed out now and then in the dark-hazel iris of the large eyes, lending them an eldritch and baleful glow. Fresh as the overhanging apple-blooms, but immobile as if carved from pearl,—perhaps it was just such a face as hers that fronted Jason, amid the clustering boughs of Colchian rhododendrons, when first he sought old AEetes' prescient daughter,—the maiden face of magical Medea, innocent as yet of murder, sacrilege, fratricide, and plunder,—eloquent of all possibilities of purity and peace, but vaguely adumbrating all conceivable disquietude and guilt.
The hushed expectancy of the fair young countenance had given place to a dreamy languor, and the dark lashes drooped heavily, when a long shadow fell upon the grass, and simultaneously the peacock sounded its shrill alarm. Rising quickly the girl found herself face to face with one upon whose features she had never looked before, and for a moment each eyed the other searchingly. The stranger raised his hat, and inclining his head slightly, said,—
"Permit me to ask your name?"
"Salome Owen. And yours, sir, is—"
For a few seconds neither spoke; but the man smiled, and the girl bit her under-lip and frowned.
"Are you the miller's daughter?"
"I am the miller's daughter; and you are the master of Grassmere."
"It seems that I come home like Rip Van Winkle, or Ulysses, unknown, unwelcomed,—unlike the latter,—even by a dog."
"Where is your sister?"
"Not having seen her for five years, I am unable to answer."
"She went to town two hours ago, to meet you."
"Then, after all, I am expected; but pray by what route—balloon or telegraph?"
"Miss Jane went to the railroad depot, but thought it possible you might not arrive to-day, and said she would attend a meeting at the church, if you failed to come. I presume she missed you in the crowd. Sir, will you walk into the house?"
Perhaps he did not hear the question, and certainly he did not heed it, amid the clamorous recollections that rushed upon him as he gazed earnestly over the lawn, down the avenue, and up at the ivy-mantled front of the old brick homestead. Thinking it might impress him as ludicrous or officious that she should invite him to enter and take possession of his own establishment, Salome reddened and compressed her lips. Apparently forgetful of her presence, he stood with his hat in his hand, noting the changes that time had wrought: the growth of venerable trees and favorite shrubs, the crumbling of fences, the gathering moss on the sun-dial, and the lichen stains upon two marble vases that held scarlet verbena on either side of the broad stone steps.
His close-fitting travelling suit of gray showed the muscular, well-developed form of a man of medium size, whose very erect carriage enhanced his height and invested him with a commanding air; while the unusual breadth of his chest and shoulders seemed to indicate that life had called him to athletic out-door pursuits, rather than the dun and dusty atmosphere of a sedentary, cloistered career.
There are subtle countenances that baffle the dainty stipple and line tracery of time, refusing to become mere tablets, mere fleshy intaglios of the past, whereon every curious stranger may spell out the bygone, and, counting their footprints, cast up the number of engraving years. Thus it happened that if Salome had not known from the family Bible that this man was almost thirty-five, her eager scrutiny of his features would have discovered little concerning his age, and still less concerning his character. Exposure to the winds and heat of tropic regions had darkened and sallowed the complexion, which his clear deep blue eyes and light brown hair declared was originally of Saxon fairness; in proof whereof, when he drew off one glove and lifted his hand it seemed as if the marble fingers of one statue were laid against the bronze cheek of another.
Looking intently at this grave yet benignant countenance, full of serenity, because calmly conscious of its power, the girl set her teeth and ground her heel into the velvet turf, for frangas non flectes was written on his smooth, broad brow, and she felt fiercely rebellious as some fiery, free creature of the Kamse, when first confronted with the bit and trappings of him who will henceforth bridle and tame the desert-bred.
Waking from his brief reverie, the stranger turned and extended his hand, saying, in tones as low and sweet as a woman's,—
"Will you not welcome a wanderer back to his home?"
She gave him the tips of her fingers, but the "Imp of the Perverse" dictated her answer,—
"As you saw fit to compare yourself, a few moments since, to certain celebrated absentees, I am constrained to tell you that I happen to be neither Penelope nor Gretchen, nor yet the illustrious dog referred to."
He smiled good-humoredly, and replied,—
"I am not very sure that there is not a spice of Dame Van Winkle somewhere in your nature. True, we are strangers, but I believe you are my sister's adopted child, and I hope you are glad to see her brother at home once more. Jane is a dear kind link, who should make us at least good friends; for, if you are attached to her you will in time learn to like me."
"I doubt it,—seeing that you resemble Miss Jane about as nearly as I do the Grand Lama of Larissa, or the idol Bhadrinath. But, sir, although it is not my office to welcome you, I presume you have not forgotten the front door, and once more I ask, Will you walk in and make yourself at home in your own house?"
As she led the way to the steps, the arched gate at the end of the avenue swung open, a carriage entered, and Salome retreated to her own room, leaving unwitnessed the happy meeting between an aged, infirm sister, and long-absent brother.
Locking the door to secure herself from intrusion, she drew a low rocking-chair to the hearth, where smouldered the embers of a dying fire, and dropping her face in her palms, stared abstractedly at the ashes. As she swayed slowly to and fro, her lips parted and closed, her brows bent from their customary curves of beauty, and half inaudibly she muttered,—
"The sceptre is departing from Judah. My rule is well nigh ended; the interregnum has been brief, and the old dynasty reigns once more. Just what I dreaded from the hour I heard he was coming home. I shall be reduced to a mere cipher, and made to realize my utter dependence,—and the iron will soon enter my soul. We paupers are adepts in the art of reading the countenance, and I have looked at this Ulpian Grey long enough to know that I might as well bombard Gibraltar with boiled peas as hope to conquer one of his whims or alter one of his purposes. There will be bitterness and strife between us. I shall wish him in his grave a thousand times before it closes over him,—and he, unless he is too good, will hate me cordially. I cannot and will not give up all my hopes and expectations, without a long, fierce struggle."
Salome Owen was the eldest of five children, who, by the death of both parents, had been thrown penniless upon the world, and found a temporary asylum in the county poor-house. Her mother she remembered merely as a feeble, fractious invalid; and her father, who had long been employed as superintendent of large mills belonging to Miss Jane Grey, had, after years of reckless intemperance, ended his wretched career in a fit of mania a potu. His death occurred at a season when Miss Grey was confined to her bed by an attack of rheumatism, which rendered her a cripple for the remainder of her days; but the first hours of her convalescence were spent in devising plans for the education and maintenance of his helpless orphans. In the dusty, cheerless yard of the poor-house she had found the little group huddled under a mulberry tree one hot July noon; and, sending the two younger children to the orphan asylum in a neighboring town, she had apprenticed one boy to a worthy carpenter, another to an eminent horticulturist in a distant State; and Salome, the handsomest and brightest of the flock, she carried to her own home as an adopted child. Here, for four years, the girl had lived in peace and luxurious ease, surrounded by all the elegances and refining associations which though not inherent in are at the command of wealth; and so rapidly and gracefully had she fitted herself into the new social niche, that the dark and stormy morning of her life had become only a dim and hideous recollection, that rarely lifted its hated visage above the smooth and shining surface of the happy present.
Fortuitous circumstances constitute the moulds that shape the majority of human lives, and the hasty impress of an accident is too often regarded as the relentless decree of all-ordaining fate; while to the philosophic anthropologist it might furnish matter for curious speculation whether, if Attila and Alaric had chanced to find themselves the pampered sons of some merchant prince,—some Rothschild or Peabody of the fifth century,—their campaigns had not been purely fiscal and bloodless, limited to the leaves of a ledger, while the names of Goth and Hun had never crystallized into synonyms of havoc and ruin; or had Timour been trained to cabbage-raising and vine-dressing, whether he would not have lived in history as the great horticulturist of Kesth, or the Diocletian of Samarcand, rather than the Tartar tyrant and conqueror of the East? How many possible Howards have swung at Tyburn? How many canonized and haloed heads have barely escaped the doom of Brinvilliers, and the tender mercies of Carnifex?
Analogous to that wonderful Gulf Stream, once a myth and still a mystery, the strange current of human existence, four score and ten years long, bears each and all of us with a strong, steady sweep away from the tropic lands of sunny childhood, enamelled with verdure and gaudy with bloom, through the temperate regions of manhood and womanhood, fruitful and harvest-hued, on to the frigid, lonely shores of dreary old age, snow-crowned and ice-veined; and individual destinies seem to resemble the tangled drift on those broad bounding gulf-billows, driven hither and thither, strewn on barren beaches, scattered over bleaching coral crags, stranded upon blue bergs,—precious germs from all climes and classes; some to be scorched under equatorial heats; some to perish by polar perils; a few to take root and flourish and triumph, building imperishable land-marks; and many to stagnate in the long, inglorious rest of a Sargasso Sea.
For all helpless human waifs in this surging ocean of time, there is comfort in the knowledge that the fiercest storms toss their drift highest; and one of these apparently savage waves of adversity had swept Salome Owen safely to an isle of palms and peace, where, under the fostering rays of prosperity, the selfish and sordid elements of her character found rapid development.
In affectionate natures, family ties serve as cords to strangle selfishness; for, in large domestic circles, each member contributes a moiety to swell the good of the whole—silently endures some trial, makes some sacrifice, shares some sympathy and sunshine, hoards some grief and gloom, and had Salome remained with her brothers and sisters, their continual claims on her time and attention would have healthfully diverted thoughts that had long centred solely in self. Finding that fortune had temporarily sheathed in velvet the goad of necessity, the girl's aspirations soared no higher than the maintenance of her present easy and luxurious position, as a petted dependent on the affection and bounty of a weak but generous and lonely old lady. Having no other object near, upon which to lavish the love and caresses that were stored in her heart, Miss Jane had turned fondly to Salome, and so earnestly endeavored to brighten her life, that the latter felt assured she was selected as the heiress of that house and estate where she had dwelt so happily; and thus sanguine concerning her future prospects, the strong will of the girl completely dominated the feebler and failing one of her benefactress, through whose fingers the reins of government slipped so gradually, that she was unconscious of her virtual abdication.
From this pleasant dream of a handsome heritage and life-long plenty, Salome had been rudely aroused by the unwelcome tidings that a young half-brother of Miss Jane was coming to reside under her roof; and prophetic fear whispered that the stranger would contest and divide her dominion. A surgeon in the United States navy, he had been absent for five years in distant seas, and only resigned his commission in consequence of letters which informed him of the feeble condition of his only surviving relative. Those who have eaten the bread of charity learn to interpret countenances with an unerring facility that eclipses the vaunted skill of Lavater, and the girl's brief inspection of the face which would henceforth confront her daily, yielded little to dispel her gloomy forebodings. The sound of the tea-bell terminated her reverie, and rising, she walked slowly to the dining-room, throwing her head as erect as possible, and compressing her mouth like some gladiator summoned to the fatal arena of the Coliseum.
The dining-room was large and airy, with lofty wide windows, and neatly papered walls, where in numerous old-fashioned and quaintly carved frames hung the ancestral portraits of the family. Although one window was open, and the mild air laden with the perfumed breath of spring, a bright wood fire flashed on the hearth, near which Miss Jane sat in her large, cushioned rocking-chair, resting her swollen slippered feet on a velvet stool, while her silver-mounted crutches leaned against the arm of her chair. An ugly and very diminutive brown terrier snarled and frisked on the rug, tormenting a staid and aged black cat, who occasionally arched her back and showed her teeth; and Dr. Grey stood leaning over his sister's chair, smoothing the soft grizzled locks that clustered under the rich lace border of her cap. He was talking of other days,—those of his boyhood, when, kneeling by that hearth, she had pasted his kites, found strings for his tops, made bags for his marbles, or bound up his bleeding hands, bruised in boyish sports; and, while he read from the fresher page of his memory the blessed juvenile annals long since effaced from hers, a happy smile lighted her withered face, and she put up one thin hand to pat the brown and bearded cheek which nearly touched her head. To the pretty young thing who had paused on the threshold, watching what passed, it seemed a peaceful picture, cosy and complete, needing no adjuncts, defying intruders; but Miss Jane caught a glimpse of the shrinking figure, and beckoned her to the fire-place.
"Salome, come shake hands with my sailor-boy, and tell him how glad we are to have his sunburnt face once more among us. Ulpian, this is my dear child Salome, who makes noise and sunshine enough in an otherwise dark and silent dreary house. Why, children, don't stand bowing at each other, like foreign ministers at court! Ulpian, you are to be a brother to that child; so go and kiss her like a Christian, and let us have no more state and ceremony."
"Sans ceremonie we introduced ourselves this afternoon, under the apple-tree, and I presume Salome will accept the assurance of my friendly intentions and fraternal regard, and decline the seal which only long acquaintance and perfect confidence could induce her to permit. Notwithstanding the very evident fact that she is not entirely overwhelmed with delight at my return, I gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to one who has so largely contributed to my sister's happiness, and shall avail myself of every opportunity to prove my appreciation of her devotion."
Dr. Grey stepped forward, took Salome's hand, and touched it lightly with his lips, while the grave dignity of his manner forbade the thought that affectation of gallantry or idle persiflage suggested the words or action.
Disarmed by the quiet courtesy which she felt she had not merited, the girl's ready wit and nimbly obedient tongue for once proved treacherous; and, conscious that the flush was deepening on cheek and brow, she moved to the oval table in the centre of the floor, and seated herself behind the massive silver urn.
"Ulpian, take your place yonder, at the foot, and excuse my absence from the table this first evening of your return. I always have my meals here, close to the fire, and Salome presides in my place. Child, put no cream in his tea, but a bountiful share of sugar. You see, my boy, I have not grown too old to recollect your whims."
As he obeyed her, Salome was preparing to pour out the tea; but, catching his eye, she paused, and Dr. Grey bowed his head on his hand, and solemnly and impressively asked a blessing, and offered up fervent thanks for the family reunion. In the somewhat fragmentary discourse that ensued between brother and sister the orphan took no part; and, a half hour later, when the little party removed to the library and established themselves comfortably for the evening, Salome drew her chair close to the lamp, and, under pretence of examining a book of engravings, covertly studied the features and mien of the new-comer.
His quiet, low-toned conversation was of other lands and distant nations, and, while there was an entire absence of that ostentatious braggardism and dropsical egotism which unfortunately attacks the majority of travellers, his descriptions of foreign scenery were so graceful and brilliant, that despite her ungracious determination and premeditated dislike, she became a fascinated listener; and, more than once, found herself leaning forward to catch his words. Her own vivid fancy travelled with him over the lakes and isles, temples and palaces, he had visited; and, when the clock struck eleven, and a brief silence succeeded, she started as from some delightful dream.
"Janet, shall we have prayers, or have I already kept you up too late?"
Dr. Grey stooped and pressed his lips to his sister's wrinkled forehead, and her voice faltered slightly, as she answered,—
"It is never too late to thank God for all his goodness, especially in bringing my dear boy safely back to me. Salome, get the large Bible from the cushion in the parlor."
As the orphan placed the book in Dr. Grey's hand it opened at the record of births, where on the wide page appeared only the name of Ulpian Grey, and from the leaves fluttered a small bow of blue ribbon.
He picked it up, and, considering it merely a book-mark, would have replaced it, but Miss Jane exclaimed,—
"It is the blue knot that fastens that child's collar. Give it to her. She lost it yesterday, and has searched the house for it. How came it in that old Bible, which I am sure has not been used for fifteen years?"
Whatever solution of the mystery Salome might have deigned to offer, remained unuttered, for Dr. Grey kindly obviated the necessity of a reply by requesting her to bring him an additional candle from an adjoining room; and the superfluous celerity with which she started on the errand called a twinkle to his eye and a half-smothered smile to his lips. She felt assured that he was thoroughly cognizant of the curiosity which had prompted her researches among the family records, and inferred that he had either no vanity to be flattered by such trifles, or was dowered with too much generosity to evince any gratification at the discovery of an interest she would have vehemently disclaimed.
It was the first time she had ever bowed before the family altar, and, notwithstanding her avowed aversion to "Puritanic ceremonials and Pharisaical practices," she was unexpectedly awed and deeply impressed by the solemnity with which he conducted the brief services; while, despite her prejudice, his grave courtesy toward her, and the subdued tenderness that marked his treatment of his sister, commanded her involuntary respect. When she stood before the mirror in her own room, unbraiding her heavy hair, a dissatisfied expression robbed her features of half their loveliness, and discontent ploughed distorting lines about the scarlet lips which muttered,—
"I wonder if, in one of his evil fits, my father sold and signed me away to Satan? I certainly am bon gre mal gre in bondage to him; for, from my inmost heart I hate 'good, pious, sanctified souls,' such as that marble man upstairs, who has come back to usurp my kingdom, and lord it over this heritage. After to-day a new regime. The potter's hands are fair and shapely, courteous and deft, but potter's hands nevertheless. Tough kneading he shall find it, and stiffer clay than ever yet was moulded, or my name is not Salome Owen. After all, how much better are we than the lower beasts of prey? In the race for riches there is but one alternative,—to devour, or be devoured; consequently that was an immemorial and well tested rule in the warfare that commenced when Adam and Eve found themselves shut out of Eden. 'Each for himself,' etc., etc., etc. Since I must ex necessitate prey or be preyed upon, I shall waste no time in deliberation."
When fifty-two years old, Daniel Grey amassed a handsome fortune by speculating in certain gold and coal mine stocks, which not only relieved him from the necessity of daily toil in his dusty counting-room, but elevated him to that more than Braminical caste, dubbed in Mammon-parlance—capitalists; whose decrees outweigh legislative statutes, and by feeling the pulse of stock-boards and all financial corporations, regulate the fiscal currents of the State. A few months subsequent to this sudden accession of wealth, his meek and devoted wife—who had patiently shared all the trials and hardships of his early impecunious career, and brightened an humble home which boasted no treasure comparable to her loving, unselfish heart,—was summoned to the enjoyment of a heritage beyond the stars; and Daniel Grey, capitalist, found himself a florid handsome widower, with two children, Enoch and Jane, to remind him continually of the pale wife over whose quiet ashes rose a costly mausoleum, where rare exotics nodded to each other across gilded slab and sculptured angels. That he profoundly mourned his loss no charitable mind could doubt, notwithstanding the obstinate fact that ere the violets had bloomed a twelvemonth over the dead mother of his children he had provided them with one who certainly bore her name, usurped her precious privileges, walked in her footsteps, but wofully failed to fill her place.
Mrs. Daniel Grey, scarcely the senior of the step-daughter whose lips most reluctantly framed the sacred word "mother," was a fresh fair young thing, whose ideas of marriage extended no further than diamonds, white satin, reception cards, and bridal presents; and whose regard for her worthy husband sought no surer basis than his bank-stock and insurance dividends. Dainty and bright, in tasteful and costly apparel, the pretty child-wife flitted up and down in his house and over the serene surface of his life, touching no feeling of his nature so deeply as that colossal parvenu vanity which exulted in the possession of a graceful walking announcement of his ability to clothe in fine fabrics and expensive jewels.
Perhaps the mildew that stained the ghastly gaunt angels who kept guard over the dust of the dead wife, extended yet further than the silent territory over which sexton and mattock reigned, for one dreary December night, instead of nestling for a post-prandial nap among the velvet cushions of his luxurious parlor, Daniel Grey, capitalist, slept his last sleep in a high-backed, comfortless chair before his desk, where the confidential clerk found him next morning, with his rigid icy fingers thrust between the leaves of his check-book.
According to the old Arab proverb,—
"The black camel named Death kneeleth once at each door, And a mortal must mount to return nevermore."
And, past all peradventure, having borne away one member of the household, the "Last Carrier" from force of habit hastens to perform the same thankless service for the remainder;—thus ere summer sunshine streamed on the husband's grave, another yawned at its side, and a wreathed and fluted shaft shot up close to his mausoleum, to tell sympathizing friends and careless strangers that the second wife of Daniel Grey had been snatched away in the morning of life.
Her infant son Ulpian was committed to the tender guardianship of his maternal grandmother, in whose hands he remained until the close of his fourth year, when her death necessitated his return to the home of his only relatives, Enoch and Jane. At the request of his sister, the former had sold the elegant new residence in a fashionable quarter of the town, and removed to the old homestead and farm, hallowed by reminiscences of their mother, and invested with the magic attractions that early association weaves about the spots frequented in youth.
Manifesting, even in boyhood, an unconquerable repugnance not only to curriculum, but the monotonous routine of mercantile pursuits, Enoch sullenly forswore stock-jobbing and finance, and declared his intention of indulging his rural tastes and becoming a farmer. Fine cattle and poultry of all kinds, heavy wheat-crops, and well-stored corn-cribs engrossed his thoughts, to the entire exclusion of abstract aesthetic speculation, of operatic music, and Pre-Raphaelitism; while the sight of one of his silky short-horned Ayrshires yielded him infinitely more pleasure than the possession of all Rosa Bonheur's ideals could possibly have done, and the soft billowy stretch of his favorite clover-meadow was worth all the canvas that Claude or Poussin had ever colored. While Enoch had cordially hated his fair blue-eyed young step-mother, not from any personal or individual grounds of grievance, but simply and solely because she dared to occupy the household niche, sanctified once and forever by his own meek gentle-toned mother, he nevertheless tenderly loved her baby-boy; and as Ulpian grew to manhood he became the idol, at whose shrine the brother and sister offered their pure and most intense affection.
Neither had married, and when the youngest of the household band completed his studies, and decided to accept a naval appointment, the consternation and grief which the announcement produced at the homestead, proved how essential the presence of the half-brother had become to the happiness of the sedate stolid Enoch, and equable unselfish Jane. But the desire to travel subordinated all other sentiments in Ulpian's nature, and he eagerly embarked for a cruise, from which he was recalled by tidings of the death of his brother.
A brief sojourn at the homestead had sufficed to arrange the affairs of the carefully-managed estate, and the young surgeon returned to his post aboard ship, in distant oriental seas. The increasing infirmity of his sister had finally induced the resignation of his cherished commission, and brought the man of thirty-five back to his home, where the "old familiar faces" seemed to have vanished forever; and, in lieu thereof, legions of cold-eyed strangers carelessly confronted him.
Emancipated from all restraint, and early consigned to the guidance of his boyish caprices and immature judgment, Ulpian Grey's character had unfolded itself under circumstances peculiarly favorable for the fostering of selfishness and the development of idiosyncrasies. As a plant, unmolested by man and beast, germinates, expands, and freely and completely manifests all its inherent tendencies, whether detrimental or beneficial to humanity, so Dr. Grey's matured manhood was no distorted or discolored result of repeated educational experiments, but a thoroughly normal efflorescence of an unbiassed healthful nature.
Habits of unwavering application and searching study, contracted in collegiate cloisters, tightened their grasp upon him, as he wandered away from the quiet precincts of Alma Mater and into the crowded noisy campus of life; and even the gregarious and convivial manners prevalent aboard ship failed to divert his attention from the prosecution of scientific researches, or to retard his rapid progress in classical scholarship.
For the treasures of knowledge thus patiently and indefatigably garnered through a series of years, travel proved an invaluable polyglot commentator, analyzing, comparing, annotating, and italicizing, and had converted his mind into a vast, systematically arranged pictorial encyclopaedia of miscellaneous lore, embellished with delicate etchings, noble engravings, and gorgeous illuminations,—a thesaurus where savants might seek successfully for data, and whence artists could derive grand types, and pure tender coloring.
Reverent and loving appreciation of the intrinsically "true, good, and beautiful" was part of the homage that his nature rendered to its Creator, and instead of flowering into a morbid and maudlin sentimentality which craves low-browed, long straight-nosed, undraped statuettes in every nook and corner,—or dwarfs the soul and pins it to the surplice of some theologic dogmata claiming infallibility—or coffins the intellect in cramped, shallow, psychological categories,—it bore fruit in a wide-eyed, large-hearted, liberal-minded eclecticism, which, waging no crusade against the various Saladins of modern systems, quietly possessed itself of the really valuable elements that constitute the basis of every ethical, aesthetic, and scientific creed, which has for any length of time levied black-mail on the credulity of mankind.
Breadth of intellectual vision promotes moral and emotional expansion—for true catholicity of mind manufactures charity in the heart; and toleration is the real mesmeric current which brings the extremes of humanity en rapport,—is the veritable ubiquitous Samaritan always provided with wine and oil for the bruised and helpless, who are strewn along the highway of life; and those who penetrated beyond the polished surface of Dr. Grey's character, realized that no tinge of cynicism, no affectation of contempt for his country and countrymen lurked in his heart, while erudition and foreign sojourning seemed only to have warmed and intensified his sympathy with all noble aims—his compassion for all grovelling ones.
That his compulsory return to the uneventful routine of life at the homestead, involved a sacrifice which he would gladly have avoided, he did not attempt to deny; but having invested a large amount of earnest, vigorous faith in the final conservatism of that much-abused monster which the seditious army of the Disappointed anathematize as "Bad Luck," he went to work contentedly in this new sphere of action, and waited patiently and trustfully for the slow grinding of the great mill of Compensation, into whose huge hopper Fate had unceremoniously poured all his plans.
His advent produced a very decided sensation not only in the quiet neighborhood in which the farm was located, but also in the adjacent town where the memory of Daniel Grey's meteoric ascent to pecuniosity still lingered in the minds of the oldest citizens, and pleasantly paved the way for a cordial reception of the fortunate son who inherited not only his mother's comeliness but his father's hoarded wealth.
Living in the middle of the nineteenth century, and in a hemisphere completely antipodal to that in which Utopia was situated, or "Bensalem" dreamed of, the appearance of a good-looking, well-educated, affluent bachelor could not fail to stir all gossipdom to its dreg; and society, ever tenderly concerned about the individual affairs of its prominent members, was all agog—busily arranging for the ci-devant United States Surgeon a programme, than which he would sooner have undertaken the feats of Samson or the Avatars of Vishnu.
His published card, announcing the fact that he had permanently located in the city and was a patient candidate for the privilege of setting fractured limbs and administering medicine, somewhat dashed the expectations of many who conjected that the Grey estate could not possibly be worth the amount so long reputed, or the principal heir would certainly not soil his fingers with pills and plasters, instead of sauntering and dawdling with librettos, lorgnettes, meerschaums, and curiously-carved canes cut in the Hebrides or the jungles of Java.
Over the door of that office, where the Angel of Death had smitten his father thirty-five years before, a new sign swung in the breeze, and showed the citizens the name of "Dr. Ulpian Grey. Office hours from nine to ten, and from two to three."
The members of the profession called formally to welcome him to a share of their annual profits, and collectively gave him a dinner; the "best families" invited him to tea or luncheon, croquet or "German," and thus, having accomplished his professional and social debut, Ulpian Grey, M.D., henceforth claimed and exercised the privilege of selecting his associates, and employing his time as inclination prompted.
In the comprehensive course of study to which he had so long devoted his attention, he had not omitted that immemorial stereotyped volume—Human Nature—which, despite the attempted revisions of sages, politicians, and ecclesiastics, remains as immutable as the everlasting hills; printing upon the leaves of the youngest century phases of guilt and guilelessness which find their prototypes in the gray dawn of time, when the "morning stars sang together,"—yea, busy to-day as of yore, slaughtering Abel, stoning Stephen, fretting Moses, crucifying Christ. Finding much that was admirable, and more that seemed ignoble, he gravely and reverently sought to possess himself of the subtle arcana of this marvellous book, rejecting as equally erroneous and unreliable the magnifying zeal of optimism and the gloomy jaundiced lenses of sneering pessimism,—thoroughly satisfied that it was a solemn duty, obligatory upon all, to study that complex paradoxical human nature, for the mastery of which Lucifer and Jesus had ceaselessly battled since the day when Adam and Eve were called "to dress and to keep" the Garden by the Euphrates,—that heaven-born, heaven-cursed, restless human nature, which now, as then,—
"Grasps at the fruitage forbidden, The golden pomegranates of Eden, To quiet its fever and pain."
A few days' residence under the same roof, and a guarded observation of Salome's conduct, sufficed to acquaint Dr. Grey with the ungenerous motives that induced her chagrin at his return; and, without permitting her to suspect that he had so accurately read her character, he endeavored as unobtrusively as possible to bridge by kindness and courtesy the chasm of jealous distrust which divided them.
Indolent and self-indulgent, she neither brooked dictation, nor gracefully accepted any suggestions at variance with the reigning whim; for, since she became an inmate of Miss Jane's hospitable home, existence had been a mere dreamy, aimless succession of golden dawns and scarlet-curtained sunsets—a slow, quiet lapsing of weeks into months,—an almost stagnant stream curled by no eddies, freighted with few aspirations, bearing no drift.
The circumstances and associations of her early life had destroyed her faith in abstract nobility of character; self-abnegation she neither comprehended nor deemed possible; and of a stern, innate moral heroism she was utterly sceptical; consequently a delicately graduated scale of selfishness was the sole balance by which she was wont to weigh men and women.
Her irregular method of study and desultory reading had rather enervated than strengthened a mind naturally clear and vigorous, and left its acquisitions in a confused and kaleidoscopic mass, bordering upon intellectual salmagundi.
One warm afternoon, on his return from town, as Dr. Grey ascended the steps he noticed Salome reclining on a bamboo settee at the western end of the gallery, where the sunshine was hot and glaring, unobstructed by the thin leafy screen of vines that drooped from column to column on the southern and eastern sides of the building. If conscious of his approach she vouchsafed not the slightest intimation of it, and when he stood beside her she remained so immovable that he might have imagined her asleep but for the lambent light which rayed out from eyes that seemed intently numbering the soft fluttering young leaves on a distant clump of elm trees, which made a lace-like tracery of golden glimmer and quivering shadow on the purple-headed clover at their feet.
Her fair but long slender fingers carelessly held a book that threatened to slip from their light relaxing grasp, and compressing his lips in order to smother a smile under his heavy moustache, Dr. Grey stooped and put his hand on her plump white wrist, where the blue veins were running riot.
"So young,—yet cataleptic! Unfortunate, indeed," he murmured.
She shook off his touch, and instantly sat erect.
"I should be glad to know what you mean."
"I have an admirable, nay, I venture to add, an almost infallible prescription for catalepsy, which has cured two chronic and apparently hopeless cases, and it will afford me great pleasure to try the third experiment upon you, since you seem pitiably in want of a remedy."
"Thank you. Were I as free from all other ills that 'flesh is heir to,' as I certainly am of the taint of catalepsy, I might indeed congratulate myself upon an immunity which would obviate the dire necessity of ever meeting a physician."
"Are you sure that you sufficiently understand the symptoms, to recognize them unerringly?"
The rose tint in her cheeks deepened to scarlet, as she haughtily drew herself up to her full height, and answered,—
"Dr. Grey himself is not more sagacious and adroit in detecting them; especially when open eyes discover unwelcome and disagreeable objects, which, wishing to avoid, they are still compelled to see. I hope you are satisfied that I comprehend you."
"My meaning was not so occult as to justify a doubt upon that subject; and moreover, Salome, lack of astuteness is far from being your greatest defect. My motive should eloquently plead pardon for my candor, if I venture to tell you that your frequent affectation of unconsciousness of the presence of others, 'is a custom more honored in the breach than the observance,' and may prove prolific of annoyance in coming years; for courtesy constitutes the keystone in the beautiful arch of social amenities which vaults the temple of Christian virtues. Lest you should take umbrage at my frankness, which ought to assure you of my interest in your happiness and improvement, permit me to remind you of the oriental definition of a faithful friend, that has more pith than verbal polish,—
"The true friend is not he who holds up Flattery's mirror, In which the face to thy conceit most pleasing hovers; But he who kindly shows thee all thy vices, sirrah! And helps thee mend them ere an enemy discovers."
Rising, Salome swept him a profound courtesy, and, while her fingers beat a tattoo on the book she held, she watched him with a peculiar sparkle in her eyes, which he had already learned to understand was a beacon flame kindled by intense displeasure. Dr. Grey seated himself, and, taking off his hat, said gently and winningly, as he pushed aside the hair that clustered in brown rings over his forehead,—
"Here is ample room for both of us. Sit down, and be reasonable; and let me catch a glimpse of the amiable elements which I feel assured must exist somewhere in your nature, notwithstanding your persistent endeavor to conceal them. Your Janus character has hitherto breathed only war—war; but, my young friend, I earnestly invoke its peaceful phase."
The kindness of tone and evident sincerity of manner might have disarmed a prejudice better founded than hers; but wrath consumed all scruples, and, recollecting his forbearance with various former acts of rudeness, she presumed to attempt further aggressions.
Waving her hand in tacit rejection of the proffered share of the settee, she answered with more emphasis than perspicuity demanded,—
"Does your reading of the book of Job encourage you to believe that when those self-appointed counsellors—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—returned to their respective homes, they had cause to congratulate themselves upon their cordial welcome to Job's bank of ashes, or felt bountifully repaid for their voluntary mission of advice?"
"Unfortunately, no. My study of the record of the man of Uz renders painfully patent that humiliating fact—old as humanity—that sanctity of motive is no coat-of-mail to the luckless few who bravely bear to the hearts of those with whom they associate the unwelcome burden of unflattering truths. Phraseology—definitions—vary with advancing centuries, but not so the human impulses they express or explain; and friendship in the days of Job was the identical 'Mutual Admiration Society,' which at present converts its consistent servile members into Damon and Pythias, but punishes any violation of its canons with hatred dire and inextinguishable. Were I blessed with the genius of Praxiteles or of Angelo, I would chisel and bequeath to the world a noble statue,—typical of that rare, fearless friendship, which, walking through the lazaretto of diseased and morbid natures, bears not honied draughts alone, but scalpel, caustic, and bitter tonics."
The calm sweetness of voice and mien lent to his words an influence which no amount of gall or satire could have imparted; and, in the brief silence that ensued, Salome's heart was suddenly smitten with a humiliating consciousness of her childish flippancy,—her utter inferiority to this man, who seemed to walk serenely in a starry plane far beyond the mire where she grovelled.
Ridicule braced and exaggerated her weaknesses, and the strokes of sarcasm she could adroitly parry; but for persistent magnanimity she was no match, and recoiled before it like the traditional Fiend at sight of the Santo Sudario. Watching her companion's quiet countenance, she saw a shadow drift over it, betokening neither anger nor scorn, but serious regret; and involuntarily she drooped her head to avoid the eyes that now turned full upon her.
"Since I became a man, and to some extent capable of discriminating with reference to the characters of persons with whom I found myself in contact, I have made and invariably observed one rule of conduct,—namely, never to associate with those whom I cannot respect. Ignorance, want of refinement, irritability of temper, and even lack of generous impulses, I can forgive, when redeemed by candor and stern honesty of purpose; but arrogance, dissimulation, and all-absorbing selfishness I will not tolerate. In you I hoped and expected better qualities than you permit me to find, and I trust you will acquit me of intentional rudeness if I acknowledge that you have painfully disappointed me. It was, and still is, my earnest wish to befriend and to aid you,—to contribute to your happiness, and cordially sympathize in any annoyances that may surround you; but thus far you have rendered it impossible for me to esteem you, and while I do not presume that my good opinion is of any importance to you, our present relations compel me to request that our intercourse may in future be characterized by more urbanity than has yet graced it. My sister has been much pained by the feelings with which you evidently regard me, and since you and I are merely guests under her roof, a due deference to her wishes should certainly repress the exhibition of antipathies towards those whom she loves. It is her earnest desire (as expressed in a conversation which I had with her yesterday) that I should treat you as a young sister; and, for her sake, I offer you once more, and for the last time, my hearty assistance in any department in which I am able to render it."
"The folds of your flag of truce do not conceal the drawn sword beneath it; and let me tell you, sir, it is very evident that 'demand' would far better have expressed your purpose than the word 'request.'"
"At least you should not be surprised if I doubt whether you regard any truce as inviolable, and am inclined to suspect you of latent treachery."
"Your accusation of dissimulation is unjust, for I have openly, fearlessly manifested my prejudice—my aversion."
"That you dislike me is my misfortune, but that you allow your detestation to generate discord in our small circle is an error which I trust you will endeavor to correct. That I have many faults I shall not attempt to deny; but mutual forbearance will prove a mutual blessing. For Jane's sake, shall there not be peace between us?"
Standing before her, he looked gravely down into her face, where flush and sparkle had died out, and saw—what she was too proud to confess—that he had partially conquered her waywardness, that she was reluctantly yielding to his influence; but he understood her nature too thoroughly to pause contented with this slight advantage in a contest which he foresaw must determine the direction of her aims through life.
"Salome, I am waiting for your decision."
Her lips stirred twice, but the words they framed were either too haughty or too humble, for she refused them utterance; and, while she deliberated, two tears settled the question by rolling swiftly over her cheeks, and falling upon the cherry ribbon at her throat.
Accepting it as a tacit signature to his terms of capitulation, and satisfied with the result, Dr. Grey forbore to urge verbal assurances. Taking the book from her hand, he said, pleasantly,—
"Are you fond of French? I frequently find you poring over your grammar."
"I have never had a teacher, nor have I conquered the conjugations; consequently, I know comparatively little about the language."
"Are you studying it with the intention of familiarizing yourself with French literature, or merely to enable you to translate the few phrases that modern writers sprinkle through novels and essays?"
"For neither purpose, but simply because it is the court language of the old world; and, if I should succeed in my hope of visiting Europe, I might regret my ignorance of the universally received medium of communication."
"Have you, then, no desire to master those noble bursts of eloquence by which Racine, Bossuet, Fenelon, and Cousin have charmed the intellects of all nations?"
"None, whatever. I might as well tell you at once, what you will inevitably discover ere long if you condescend to inspect my meagre attainments, that for abstract study I have no more inclination than to fondle some mummy in the crypts of Cyrene, or play 'blind man's buff' with the corpses in the Morgue. My limited investments of time and thought in intellectual stock have been made solely with reference to speedy dividends of most practical and immediate benefits; and knowledge per se—knowledge which will not pay me handsome interest—has no more value in my eyes than a handful of the dust of those Atures found in the cavern of Ataruipe. Doubtless you think me pitiably benighted, and possibly I might find more favor in your sight if I affected a prodigious amount of literary enthusiasm, and boundless admiration for scholarship and erudition; but that would prove too troublesome an imposture,—for I am constitutionally, habitually, and premeditatedly lazy."
She saw a smile lurking under his heavy lashes, and half ambushed in the corners of his mouth; and, vaguely conscious that she was rendering herself ridiculous, she bit her lip with ill-disguised vexation.
"Salome, I am afraid that under the garb of a jest you are making me acquainted with a very mournful truth. You have probably never heard of Lessing,—Gotthold Ephraim Lessing."
"Oh, I am not quite as ignorant as a Pitcairn's Islander; and I think I have somewhere seen that such a person as Lessing lived at Wolfenbuettel. He once said, 'The chase is always worth more than the quarry.' And again, 'Did the Almighty, holding in his right hand Truth, and in his left Search after Truth, deign to proffer me the one I might prefer,—in all humility, but without hesitation, I should request Search after Truth.' When you have nothing more important to occupy your attention, give ten minutes' reflection to his admonition, and perhaps it may declare a dividend years hence. Last week I found your algebra on the rug before the library grate, and noticed several sums worked out in pencil on the margin. Are you fond of mathematics?"
"Not that I am aware of."
"What progress have you made?"
"My knowledge of arithmetic is barely sufficient to take me through a brief shopping expedition."
"Have you no ambition to increase it?"
"Dr. Grey, I have no ambition. That 'last infirmity of noble minds' has never attacked me; and, folding my hands, I chant ceaselessly to my soul, 'Take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.' The rapture of the mathematician, who bows before the shrine of his favorite science, is to my dull intellect as incomprehensible as the jargon of metaphysics or the mysteries wrapped up in Pali cerements. Equations, conic sections, differential calculus, constitute a skull and cross-bones to which I allow as wide a berth as possible."
The weary dissatisfied expression of her large, luminous eyes, belied the sneer in her voice and the curl of her thin lip, and it cost her an effort to answer his next question.
"Will you tell me what rule you have adopted for the distribution of your time, and the government of your life?"
"Yes, sir; you are heartily welcome to it: 'Yet a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep.' Laissez nous faire. Moreover, Dr. Grey, if you will courteously lend me your ears, I will favor you with a still more felicitous exposition of my invaluable organon."
Stooping suddenly, she raised from the floor a small volume which had been concealed by her dress, and, as it opened at a page stained with the juice of a purple convolvulus, she smiled defiantly, and read with almost scornful emphasis,—
... "'Ah, why Should life all labor be? Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast, And in a little while our lips are dumb. Let us alone. What is it that will last? All things are taken from us, and become Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past. Let us alone. What pleasure can we have To war with evil? Is there any peace In ever climbing up the climbing wave? All things have rest, and ripen towards the grave In silence; ripen, fall, and cease: Give us long rest or death; dark death or dreamful ease.'
There, Dr. Grey, you have my creed and method,—Laissez nous faire."
With a degree of gravity that trenched on sternness, he bowed, and answered,—
"So be it. I might insist that the closing lines of 'Ulysses' nobly refute all the numbing heresy of the 'Lotos Eaters'—
... 'But something ere the end, Some work of noble note may yet be done. That which we are, we are: One equal templer of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'
But I would not rouse you from a lethargy, which, knowing it to be fatal to all hopes of usefulness, you still deliberately prefer. Take care, however, lest you bury the one original talent so deep that you fail to unearth it when the Master demands it in the final day of restitution. I have questioned you concerning your studies, because I desired and intended to offer my services as tutor, while you prosecuted mathematics and the languages; but I forbear to suggest a course so evidently distasteful to you. Unless I completely misjudge your character, I fear the day is not distant, when, haunted by ghosts of strangled opportunities, you will realize the solemn and painful truth, that,—
'There is nothing a man knows, in grief or in sin, Half so bitter as to think, What I might have been!'"
"Salome, you look so weary that I must insist upon relieving you. Give me the book and run out for a breath of fresh air—a glimpse of blue sky."
Dr. Grey laid his hand on the volume, but the girl shook her head and pushed aside his fingers.
"I am not at all tired, and even if I were it would make no difference. Miss Jane desires me to read this sermon aloud, and I shall finish it."
The invalid, who had been confined to her bed for many days by a severe attack of rheumatism, partially raised herself on one elbow, and said,—
"My dear, give him the book, while you take a little exercise. You have been pent up here long enough, and, moreover, I want to talk to Ulpian about some business matters. Don't look so sullen, my child; it makes no difference who reads the sermon to me. Kiss me, and run out on the lawn."
The orphan relinquished chair and book, but there was no relaxation of her bent brows, and neither warmth nor lingering pressure in the firm, hardly drawn lips, which lightly touched the old lady's sallow, wrinkled cheek. When she had left the room, closing the door after her with more force than was requisite to bolt it securely, Miss Jane sighed heavily, and turned to her brother.
"Poor thing! She is so jealous of you; and it distresses me to see that no friendship grows up between you, as I hoped and believed would be the case. If you would only notice her a little more I think you might win her over."
"Leave it to time, Janet. I 'have piped unto her and she would not dance; I have mourned unto her, and she has not lamented,'—and concessions only feed her waywardness. If there be a residuum of good sense and proper feeling in her nature, they will assert themselves after a while; if not, all extraneous influences are futile. I will resume the reading, if agreeable to you."
Moody and rebellious, Salome stood for some moments on the threshold of the front door, staring vacantly out over the lawn; then, snatching her hat from a hook in the hall, she swiftly crossed the grounds, climbed over a low lattice fence at the foot of the declivity, and followed a worn but neglected path leading into the adjoining forest.
The sanctity of the Sabbath afternoon rested like a benison over the silent glades, where sunshine made golden roads along the smooth brown pine straw, and glinted on the purple flags that fluttered in the mild west wind. Even the melancholy plaint of sad-eyed dun doves was hushed, as they slowly swung in the swaying pine-tops; and two young lambs, neglected by the wandering flock, lay sleeping quietly, with their snowy heads pillowed on clustering violets,—far from the fold, forgotten by their mothers, at the mercy of strolling dogs, watched only by the Great Shepherd.
Salome's rapid pace soon placed a mile between her and the fence that bounded the lawn; and, pushing through the dense undergrowth which betokened the proximity of a stream, she stood ere long on the margin of a wide pond which supplied the broad, shining sheet of beryl water that poured over the rocky dam, close to the large irregular building called "Grey's Mill."
Piles of lumber were bleaching in the sunshine, but the machinery was at rest, the workmen were all absent, and not a sound broke the stillness, save the steady, monotonous chant of the water leaping down into the race, where a thousand foam-flakes danced along towards the huge wheels, and died on the soft green mosses and lush-creepers that stole down to bathe in the sparkling wavelets. The knotted roots of an old beech tree furnished a resting-place, and Salome sat down and leaned her head against the scarred trunk, where lightning had once girdled and partially destroyed it,—leaving one-half the branches leafy, the remainder scorched and barren.
Overhanging willows darkened the edges of the pond; and, in the centre, one tall, venerable cypress, lonely as some palm in the desert, rose like a gray shaft tufted with a fine fringe of fresh green; and occasional clusters of broad, shining leaves, spread themselves on the surface of the water, cradling large, snowy lilies, whose gold-powdered stamens trembled ceaselessly. Now and then a trout leaped up, as if for a breath of May air, and fell back into the circle that widened until it touched either bank; and not far from a cow who stood knee-deep in water, browsing on a wild rose that clambered over the willows to peep at its pink image in the pond, a proud pair of gray geese convoyed a brood of yellow younglings that dived and breasted the ripples with evident glee.
With her arms clasped around her knees, Salome sat watching the blue tendrils of smoke that rose from a clump of elms beyond the mill and curled lazily upward until they lost themselves in air; and, though the arching elm boughs hid mossy roof and chimney, she nevertheless felt that she was looking on the old house where she was born, and where ten dreary years of sorrow and humiliation had embittered and perverted her nature.
Those elms had seen her mother die, had heard her father's drunken revelry, and bent their aged heads to listen on that wild wintry night, when in blood-curdling curses his soul rent itself from the degraded tenement of clay. Apparently peace brooded over earth, sky, and water; but to that lonely figure under the riven beech, every object within the range of vision babbled horrible tales of the early years, and memory pointed to a corner of the lumber-shed adjoining the mill where she had often secreted herself to avoid her father's brutality,—always keeping her head in the moonshine, because she dreaded the darkness inside, which childish fancy filled with ghostly groups. She hated the place as she hated the past, and this was the second time she had visited it since the day that consigned her to the poor-house; for it was impossible for her to look at the pond without recollecting one dark passage in her life, known only to God and herself. To-day she recalled, with startling vividness a dusky, starlit June evening, when, maddened by an unmerited and unusually severe punishment inflicted by her father, she had resolved to drown herself, and find peace in the mud at the bottom of the mill-pond. Placing her infant sister on the grass, she had kissed her good-by, and selecting the deepest portion of the water, had climbed out on a willow branch and prepared for the final plunge. Putting her fingers in her ears that she might not hear the bubbling of the murderous water, she shut her eyes and sprang into the pond; but her long hair caught the willow twigs, and, half strangled and quite willing to live, she scrambled up into the low limbs that seemed so anxious to rescue her from a watery grave; and, dripping and trembling, crept back to the house, comforting herself with the grim assurance that whatever else might befall, she certainly was not foreordained to be either beaten to death or drowned. The impulse which had brought her on this occasion to a scene so fraught with harrowing memories, was explicable only by the supposition that its painful surroundings were in consonance with the bitter and despondent mood in which she found herself; and, in the gloom that this retrospection shed over her countenance, her features seemed to grow wan and angular. For several days she had been sorely disquieted by the realization of Miss Jane's rapidly failing strength; and the probability of her death, which a year ago would have been entirely endurable as an avenue to wealth, now appeared the direst catastrophe that had yet threatened her ill-starred life.
It was distressing to think of the kind old face growing stiff in a shroud, but infinitely more appalling to contemplate the possibility of being turned out of a comfortable home and driven to labor for a maintenance. Salome had a vague impression that either Providence or the world owed her a luxurious future, as partial compensation for her juvenile miseries; but since both seemed disposed to repudiate the debt, she was reluctantly compelled to ponder her prospective bankruptcy in worldly goods, and, like the unjust steward, while unwilling to work she was still ashamed to beg.
Although she strenuously resisted the strong, steady influence so quietly exerted by Dr. Grey, the best elements of her nature, long dormant, began to stir feebly, and she was conscious of nobler aspirations than those which had hitherto swayed her; and of a dimly-defined self-dissatisfaction that was novel and annoying. Unwilling to admit that she valued his good opinion, she nevertheless felt chagrined at her failure to possess it, and gradually she realized her utter inferiority to this man, whose consistent Christian character commanded an entire respect which she had never before entertained for any human being. Immersed in vexing thoughts concerning her future, she mechanically stretched out her hand to pluck a bunch of phlox and of lemon-hued primroses that were nodding in the sunshine close to her feet; but, as she touched the stems, a large copper-colored snake slowly uncoiled from the tuft of grass where they nestled and, gliding into the water, disappeared in the midst of the lilies.
"I wonder if throughout life all the flowers I endeavor to grasp will prove only Moccasin-beds! Why should they,—unless God abdicates and Satan reigns? I have found, to my cost, that existence is not made entirely of rainless June days; but I doubt whether darkness and storms shut out the warm glow and perpetually curtain the stars. Obviously I am no saint; still, I am disposed to believe I am not altogether wicked. I have committed no capital sins, nor grievously transgressed the decalogue,—and why should I despair of my share of the good things of life? I am neither Cain nor Jezebel, and therefore Fates and Furies have no warrant to dog my footsteps. Moreover, how do I know that Destiny is indeed the hideous, vindictive crone that luckless wretches have painted her, instead of an amiable, good soul, who is quite as willing to scatter blessings as curses? Because some dyspeptic Greek dreamed of three pitiless old weavers, blind to human tears, deaf to human petitions, why should we wise and enlightened people of the nineteenth century scare ourselves with the skeleton of Paganism? I have as inalienable a right to brocades, crown-jewels, and a string of titles, as any reigning queen, provided I can only get my hands upon them; and, since life seems to be a sort of snatch-and-hold game, quick keen eyes and nimble fingers decide the question. I have never trodden on the world's tender toes, nor smitten its pet follies, nor set myself aloft to gaze pityingly on its degradation, therefore, the world honors me with no special grudge. But one thing is mournfully certain,—my path is not strewn with loaves and fishes ready baked and broiled, and I must even go gleaning and fishing for myself. Almost everybody has some gift or some mission; but I really do not see in what direction I can set to work. Work! How I hate the bare thought! I have not sufficient education to teach, nor genius to write, nor a talent for drawing, and barely music enough in my soul to enable me to carry the church tunes respectably. Come, Salome Owen! Shake off your sloth, and face the abominable fact that you must earn your own bread. It is a great shame, and I ought not to be obliged to work, for I am not responsible for my existence, and those who brought me into the world owed it to me to provide for my wants. I cannot and will not forgive my father and mother; but that will not mend matters, since, nevertheless, here I am, with a body to feed and clothe, and God only knows how I am to accomplish it. I find myself with youth, health, some beauty, an average share of intellect, and all the wants pertaining thereunto. If the worst comes to the worst I suppose I can contrive, like other poverty-stricken girls, to marry somebody who will support me comfortably; but that is rather an uncertain speculation, and meantime Miss Jane might die. Now, if the Bible is true, it must indeed be a blessed lot to be born a brown sparrow, and have the Lord for a commissary. I am a genuine child of old Adam, and labor is the heaviest curse that could possibly be sent upon me."
Once or twice during this profitless reverie she had paused to listen to a singular sound that came from a dense group of willows not far from the spot where she sat, and now it grew louder, swelling into a measured cry, as of a child in great distress.
"Somebody in trouble, but it does not concern me; I have enough and to spare, of my own."
She settled herself once more quite comfortably, but the low, monotonous wail, smote her heart, and womanly sympathy with suffering strangled her constitutional selfishness. Rising, she crept cautiously along the edge of the pond until she reached the thicket whence the sound proceeded, and, as she pushed aside the low branches and peeped into the cool, green nook, her eyes fell upon the figure of a little boy who lay on the ground, rolling from side to side and sobbing violently.
"What is the matter? Are you sick or hungry?"
Startled by the sound of her voice, the child uttered a scream of terror, and whirled over, hiding his face in the leaves and grass.
"For Heaven's sake, stop howling! What are you about,—wallowing here in the mud, ruining your clothes, and yelling like a hyena? Hush, and get up."
"Oh, please, ma'am, don't tell on me! Don't carry me back, and I will hush!"
"Where do you live?"
"Nowhere. Oh!—oh!" And he renewed his cries.
"A probable story. What is your name?"
"Haven't got any name."
"You have no name, and you live nowhere? Come, little fellow, this will never do. I am afraid you are a very bad boy and have run away from home to escape being punished. Hush this instant!"
He had kept his face carefully concealed, and, resolved to ascertain the truth, Salome stooped and tried to lift him; but he struggled desperately, and screamed frantically,—
"Let me alone! I won't go back! I will jump into the pond and drown myself if you don't let me alone."
He was so hoarse from constant crying that she could recognize no familiar tones in his voice, but a great dread seized her, and, suddenly putting her hands under his head, she forced the face up, and looked at the flushed, swollen features.
"Stanley! Is it possible? My poor little brother!"
The equally astonished boy started up, and stared half wistfully, half fearfully, at the figure standing before him.
"Is it you, Salome? I did not know you."
"How came you here? When did you leave the Asylum?"
"I ran away, three days ago."
"Because I was tired of living there, and I wanted to come back home."
"Home, indeed! You miserable begger, don't you know you have no home but the Orphan Asylum?"
"Yes, I have. I want to come back yonder. Don't you see home yonder, among the trees, with the pretty white and speckled pigeons flying over it?"
He pointed across the pond to the old house beyond the mill, whose outlines were visible through the openings in the elms; and, as he gazed upon it with that intense longing so touching in a child's face, his sobs increased.
"Stanley, that is not your home now. Other people live there, and you have no right to come back. Why did you run away from the Asylum? Did they treat you unkindly?"
"No,—yes. They whipped me because I cried and said I hated to stay there, and wanted to come home."
Salome looked at the soiled, torn clothes, and sorrowful face; and, bursting into tears, she bent forward and drew her brother to her bosom. He put his arms around her neck, and kissed her cheek several times, saying, softly and coaxingly,—
"Sister Salome, you won't send me back, will you? Please let me stay with you, and I will be a good boy."
For some minutes she was unable to reply, and wept silently as she smoothed the tangled hair back from the child's white forehead and pressed her lips to it.
"Stanley, how is Jessie? Where did you leave her?"
"She is well, and I left her at the Asylum. She had a long cry the night I ran away, and said she wanted to see you, and she thought you had forgotten us both. You know, Salome, it is over a year since you came to see us, and Jessie and I are so lonesome there, we hate the place."
"What were you crying so bitterly about when I found you, just now?"
"I am so hungry, and the man who lives yonder at home drove me away. He said I was prowling around to steal something, and if he saw me there any more he would shoot me. I ate my last piece of biscuit yesterday."
"Why did you not come to me instead of the miller?"
"I was afraid you would send me back to the Asylum; but you won't,—I know you won't, Salome."
"Suppose I had not happened to hear you crying,—what would have become of you? Did you intend to starve here in the swamp?"
"I thought I would wait till the miller left home, and then beg his wife to give me some bread, and, if I could get nothing, I was going to pull up some carrots that I saw growing in a field back of the house. Oh, Salome, I am so hungry and so tired!"
She sat down on a heap of last year's leaves, which autumn winds and winter rains had driven against the trunk of a decayed and fallen sweet-gum, and, drawing the weary head with its shock of matted yellow curls to her lap, she covered her own face with her hands to hide the hot tears that streamed over her cheeks.
"Salome, are you very mad with me?"
"Yes, Stanley; you have behaved very badly, and I don't know what I ought to do with you."
He tried to put aside one of her shielding hands, and failing, wound his arms around her waist, and nestled as close as possible.
"Sister, please let me stay and live with you, and I promise—I declare—I will be a good boy."
"Poor little fellow! You don't in the least know what you are talking about. How can you live with me when I have no home, and not a dollar?"
"I thought you stayed with a rich lady, and had everything nice that you wanted."
"I do not expect to have even a shelter much longer. The lady who takes care of me is sick, and cannot live very long; and, when she dies, I don't know where I shall go or what I may be obliged to do."
"If you will only keep me I will help you work. At the Asylum I saw wood, and pick peas, and pull out grass and weeds from the strawberry vines, and sometimes I sweep the yards. Just try me a little while, Salome, and see how smart I can be."
"Would you be willing to leave poor little Jessie at the Asylum? If she felt so lonesome when you were there, how will she get along without you?"
"Oh, we could steal her out some night, and keep her with us. Salome, I tell you I don't mean to go back there. I will die first. I will drown myself, or run away to sea. I would rather starve to death here in the swamp. Everybody else can get a home, and why can't we?"
"Because your father was a drunkard, and left his children to the charity of the poor-house; and, God knows, I heartily wish we were all screwed down in the same coffin with him. You and I, Jessie, and Mark, and Joel are all beggars—miserable beggars! Hush, Stanley, you will sob yourself into a fever! Stop crying, I say, if you do not want to drive me crazy! I thought I had trouble enough, without being tormented by the sight of your poor, wretched face; and now, what to do with you I am sure I don't know. There—do be quiet. Take your arms away; I don't want you to kiss me any more."
In the long silence that succeeded, the child, spent with grief and fatigue, fell into a sound sleep, and Salome sat with his head in her lap and her clasped hands resting on her knee.
The afternoon slowly wore away, and the dimpled pond caught lengthening shadows on its surface as the sun dipped into the forest. The measured tinkle of a distant bell told that the cows were wending quietly homeward; and, while the miller's wife drove her geese into the yard, the pigeons nestled in their leafy coverts high among the elm arches, and the solemn serenity of coming summer night stole with velvet tread over the scene, silencing all things save the silvery barcarolle of the falling water, and the sweet, lonely vesper hymn of a whippoorwill, half hidden in the solitary cypress.
Although tears came very rarely to her eyes, the orphan had wept bitterly, and, surprised at finding herself so completely unnerved on this occasion, she made a powerful effort to regain her composure and usual stolidity of expression. Shaking the little sleeper, she said,—
"Wake up, Stanley. Get your hat and come with me, at least for to-night."
The child was too weary to renew the conversation, and, hand in hand, the two walked silently on until they approached the confines of the farm, when Salome suddenly paused at sight of Dr. Grey, who was crossing the pine forest just in front of them. Pressing his sister's hand, Stanley looked up and asked, timidly,—
"What are you going to do with me?"
"Hush! I have not fully decided."
She endeavored to elude observation by standing close to the body of a large pine, but Dr. Grey caught a glimpse of her fluttering dress, and came forward rapidly, carrying in his arms one young lamb and driving another before him.
"Salome, will you be so good as to assist me in shepherding this obstinate little waif? It has been running hither and thither for nearly half an hour, taking every direction but the right one. If you will either walk on and lower the bars for me or drive this lamb while I go forward, you will greatly oblige me. Pardon me,—you look distressed. Something painful has occurred, I fear."
The girl's usually firm mouth trembled as she laid her hand on the torn straw hat that shaded Stanley's features, and answered, hurriedly,—
"Yes. We have both stumbled upon stray lambs; but mine, unfortunately, happens to prove my youngest brother, and, since I am neither Reuben nor Judah, I could not leave him in the woods to perish. Stanley, run on and pull down the bars yonder, where you see the sheep looking through the fence."
"How old is he?"
"About eight years, I believe, but he is small for his age."
"He does not in the least resemble you."
"No; pitiable little wretch, he looks like nothing but destitution! When a poor man dies, leaving a houseful of beggarly orphans, the State ought to require the undertaker who buries him to shoot or hang the whole brood, and lay them all in the Potter's Field out of the world's way."
"Such words and sentiments are strangely at variance with the affectionate gentleness and resignation which best become womanly lips, and I pity the keen suffering that wrings them from yours. He who 'setteth the solitary in families' never yet failed in loving guardianship of trusting orphanage, and certainly you have no cause to upbraid fate, or impiously murmur against the decrees of your God."
He stood before her, with one hand stroking the head of the lamb that nestled on his bosom; but his face was sterner, his voice far more severe, than she had ever known either before, and her eyes fell beneath the grave and sorrowful rebuke which looked out from his.
"Your brother ran away from the Asylum, three days ago."
"How did you ascertain that fact?"
"About an hour after you left the house, the matron of the Asylum sent to inquire whether you were aware of his absence, and to notify you that your little sister Jessie is quite ill. I was searching for you, when I accidentally found these lambs, deserted by their mother. Thank you, Stanley; I will put up the bars, and you can go to the house with your sister. Salome, the carriage is ready, and if you desire to see Jessie immediately I will take you over as soon as possible. There is a full moon, and you can return with me or remain at the Asylum until morning. Confer with my sister concerning the disposal of this little refugee."
He patted the boy's head, and entered the sheepfold, while Salome stood leaning against the fence, looking vacantly down at the bleating flock.
Catching her brother's hand, she hurried to the house, bathed his face, brushed his disordered hair, and gave him a bountiful supper of bread and milk; after which, Jane Grey ordered the little culprit brought to her bedside, where she delivered a kind lecture on his sinful disobedience. When Dr. Grey entered the room, Salome was standing at the window, while Stanley clung to her dress, hiding his face in its folds, vowing vehemently that he would not return to the Asylum, and protesting with many sobs that he would be the best boy in the world if he were only allowed to remain at the farm.
"Salome, do quiet him; he will fret himself into a fever," said Miss Jane, whose nerves began to quiver painfully.
"He has it already," answered the girl, without turning her head. She did not observe Dr. Grey's entrance, and when he approached the window, where the mellow moonshine streamed full on her face, he saw tears stealing over her cheeks, and noticed that her fingers were clenched tightly.
"Salome, do you wish to see Jessie to-night? She has had convulsions during the day, and may not live until morning."
She looked up at his grave, noble countenance, and her lips fluttered as she answered, huskily,—
"I can do nothing for her, and why should I see her die?"
"To whose care was she committed by her dying mother?"
"Have you faithfully kept the sacred trust?"
"I did all that I could until Miss Jane placed her in the asylum."
"Does your conscience acquit you?"
She silently dropped her face in her hands, and for some seconds he watched her anxiously.
"Have you and Janet decided what shall be done with Stanley?"
"No; the longer I ponder the matter, the more confused my mind becomes."
"Will you leave it in my hands, and abide by my decision?"
"You promise to be satisfied with any course upon which I may resolve?"
Looking up quickly, she exclaimed,—
"Oh, yes; I trust you, fully. Do what you think best."
Dr. Grey put his hand under Stanley's chin, and, lifting his face, examined his countenance and felt his pulse.
"He is only frightened and fatigued. Put him to bed at once in your room, and then let me take you to see little Jessie. If you fail to go, you might reproach yourself in coming years."
It was nine o'clock when the carriage stopped at the door of the Asylum, and Salome and Dr. Grey went up to the "Infirmary," where the faithful matron sat beside one of the little beds, watching the deep slumber of the flushed and exhausted sleeper.
The disease had almost spent its force, the crisis was passed, and the attending physician had pronounced the patient much better; still, when Salome stooped to kiss her sister, the matron held her back, assuring her that perfect quiet was essential for her recovery. Kneeling there beside the motherless girl, Salome noted the changes that time and suffering had wrought on the delicate features; and, as she listened to the quick, irregular breathing, the fountain of tenderness was suddenly unsealed in her own nature, and she put out her arms, yearning to clasp Jessie to her heart. So strong were her emotions, so keen was her regret for past indifference and neglect, that she lost all self-control, and, unable to check her passionate weeping, Dr. Grey led her from the room, promising to bring her again when the sick child was sufficiently strong to bear the interview.
During the ride homeward he made no effort to divert her thoughts or relieve her anxiety, knowing that although severe it was a healthful regimen for her long indurated heart, and was the renaissance of her better nature.
When they arrived at home, the moon was shining bright and full, and, as they waited on the gallery for a servant to open the door, Dr. Grey drew most favorable auguries from the chastened, blanched face, with its humbled and grieved expression.
"Salome, I shall for the present keep Stanley here; and, until I can make some satisfactory arrangement with reference to his education, I would be glad to have you hear his recitations every day. Have you the requisite leisure to superintend his lessons?"
"Yes, sir. I have not deserved this kindness from you, Dr. Grey; but I thank you, from my inmost heart. You are good enough to forgive my many offences, and I shall not soon forget it."
"Salome, you owe me no gratitude, but there is much for which you should go down on your knees and fervently thank your merciful God. My young friend, will you do this?"
He extended his hand, and, unable to utter a word, Salome gave him hers, for a second only, and hastened to her own room, where Stanley's fair face lay in the golden moonlight, radiant with happy dreams of white pigeons and pet lambs.
"Don't strangle me, Jessie! Put down your arms, and listen to me. Sobbing will not mend matters, and you might as well make up your mind to be patient. Of course I should like to take you with me, if I had a home; but, as I told you just now, we are so poor that we must live where we can, not where we prefer. Because I wear nice pretty clothes do you suppose I have a pocketful of money? I have not a cent to buy even a loaf of bread, and I can't ask Miss Jane to take care of you as well as of Stanley and myself. Poor little thing, don't cry so! I know you are lonely here without Stanley, but it can't be helped. Jessie, don't you see that it can not be helped?"
"I don't eat so very much, and I could sleep with Buddie and wouldn't be in the way,—and I can wear my old clothes. Oh, please, Salome! I will die if you leave me here."
"You will do no such thing; you are getting well as fast as possible. Crying never kills people,—it only makes their heads ache, and their eyes red and ugly. See here, if you don't stop all this, I shall quit coming to see you! Do you hear what I say?"
The only reply was a fresh sob, which the child strove to smother by hiding her face in Salome's lap.
The matron, who sat by the open window, looked up from the button-hole she was working, and, clearing her throat, said,—
"Better let her have her cry out,—that is the surest cure for such troubles as hers. She was always manageable and good enough until Stanley ran away, and since then she does nothing but mope and bite her finger-nails. Cry away, Jessie, and have done with it. Ah, miss, the saddest feature about Asylums is the separation of families; and if the matron had a heart of stone it would melt sometimes at sight of these little motherless things clinging to each other. I'm sure I have shed a gallon of tears since I came here. It is a fearful responsibility to take charge of an institution like this, for if I try to make the children respect my authority, and behave themselves properly, outsiders 'specially the neighbors, says I am too severe; and if I let them frolic and romp and make as much din and uproar as they like, why, then the same folks scandalize me and the managers, and say there is no sort of discipline maintained. I verily believe, miss, that if an angel came down from heaven to matronize these children, before six months elapsed all the godliness would be worried out of her soul by the slanders of the public and the squabbles of the children. Now I don't confess to be an angel, but I do claim a conscience, and God knows I make it a rule to treat these orphans exactly as I treated my own and only child, whom I buried three years ago. Do you suppose that any woman who has laid her first-born in its coffin could be brutal enough to maltreat poor little motherless lambs? I don't deny that sometimes I am compelled to punish them, for it is as much my duty to whip them for bad conduct as to see that their meals are properly cooked and their clothes kept in order. Am I to let them grow up thieves and liars? Must I stand by and see them pull out each other's hair and bite off one another's ears?"
"Of course not, Mrs. Collins. You must preserve some discipline."
"Must I? Well, miss, I will show you how beautifully that sounds and how poorly it works. There is your brother Stanley (I mean no offence, miss, but special cases explain better than generalities),—there's your brother Stanley, who ran away—for what?"
"Because he was homesick and wanted to see me."
"No such thing, begging your pardon. Perhaps he told you that, but remember there are always two sides to every tale. The truth of the matter is just this: Stanley has an ugly habit of cursing, which I will not tolerate; and, twice when I heard him swearing at the other children, I shamed him well and slapped him soundly. Last week I told him and Joe Clark to shell a basket of peas, while the cook was making some ginger-bread for them, and before I was out of the room they commenced quarrelling. They raised such an uproar that I came back and saw the whole fray. Stanley cursed Joe, who expostulated and tried to pacify him, and when he finally threatened to tell me that Stanley was cursing again, your brother snatched a hatchet that was lying on the dresser and swore he would kill him if he did. He aimed a blow at Joe's head, but slipped on the pea-hulls, and the hatchet struck the boy's right foot, cutting off one of his toes. Now what would you have done, under the circumstances,—allowed the children to be tomahawked in that style? You say I must have discipline. Well, miss, I tried to 'discipline' Stanley's wickedness out of him by giving him a whipping, and the end of the matter was that he ran away that afternoon. That is not the worst of it,—for the children all know the facts, and since they find that Stanley Owen can run away and be sustained in his disobedience, of course it tends to demoralize them. So I say that if I do my duty I am lashed by the tongues of people who know nothing of the circumstances; and if I fail to perform my duty I am lashed by my own conscience,—and between the two I have a sorrowful time; for I declare to you, miss, that Stephen's martyrdom was a small affair in comparison with what I pass through every week. I love the children and try to be kind to them, but I can't have them cursing and swearing like sailors, and scalping each other. I must either raise them like Christians, or resign my situation to some one who is 'wise as serpents and harmless as doves.' It is all very fine to talk of 'proper discipline' in charitable institutions; but, miss, in the name of common sense, how can I get along unless the friends of the children sustain me? Did you punish Stanley, and send him back? On the contrary, you countenanced his bad conduct and kept him with you, and it is perfectly natural that little Jessie here should be dissatisfied and anxious to join him. I can't scold her, for I know she misses her brother, who was always very tender and considerate in his treatment of her."
"I appreciate the difficulties which surround you, and believe that you are conscientiously striving to do your duty towards these children; but I knew that if I compelled Stanley to return it would augment instead of correcting the mischief."
At this juncture the matron was summoned from the room, and, during the silence that ensued, Jessie climbed into her sister's lap, wound her thin arms around her neck, and softly rubbed her pale cheek against the polished rosy face, where perplexity and annoyance were legibly written.