Anna E. Dickinson
"In flower of youth and beauty's pride."
A crowded New York street,—Fifth Avenue at the height of the afternoon; a gallant and brilliant throng. Looking over the glittering array, the purple and fine linen, the sweeping robes, the exquisite equipages, the stately houses; the faces, delicate and refined, proud, self-satisfied, that gazed out from their windows on the street, or that glanced from the street to the windows, or at one another,—looking over all this, being a part of it, one might well say, "This is existence, and beside it there is none other. Let us dress, dine, and be merry! Life is good, and love is sweet, and both shall endure! Let us forget that hunger and sin, sorrow and self-sacrifice, want, struggle, and pain, have place in the world." Yet, even with the words, "poverty, frost-nipped in a summer suit," here and there hurried by; and once and again through the restless tide the sorrowful procession of the tomb made way.
More than one eye was lifted, and many a pleasant greeting passed between these selected few who filled the street and a young man who lounged by one of the overlooking windows; and many a comment was uttered upon him when the greeting was made:—
"A most eligible parti!"
"Handsome as a god!"
"O, immensely rich, I assure you!"
"Isn't he a beauty!"
"Pity he wasn't born poor!"
"O, because they say he carried off all the honors at college and law-school, and is altogether overstocked with brains for a man who has no need to use them."
"Will he practise?"
"Doubtful. Why should he?"
"Ambition, power,—gratify one, gain the other."
"Nonsense! He'll probably go abroad and travel for a while, come back, marry, and enjoy life."
"He does that now, I fancy."
And indeed he did. There was not only vigor and manly beauty, splendid in its present, but the "possibility of more to be in the full process of his ripening days,"—a form alert and elegant, which had not yet all of a man's muscle and strength; a face delicate, yet strong,—refined, yet full of latent power; a mass of rippling hair like burnished gold, flung back on the one side, sweeping low across brow and cheek on the other; eyes
"Of a deep, soft, lucent hue,— Eyes too expressive to be blue, Too lovely to be gray."
People involuntarily thought of the pink and flower of chivalry as they looked at him, or imagined, in some indistinct fashion, that they heard the old songs of Percy and Douglas, or the later lays of the cavaliers, as they heard his voice,—a voice that was just now humming one of these same lays:—
"Then mounte! then mounte, brave gallants, all, And don your helmes amaine; Death's couriers, Fame and Honor, call Us to the field againe."
"Stuff!" he cried impatiently, looking wistfully at the men's faces going by,—"stuff! We look like gallants to ride a tilt at the world, and die for Honor and Fame,—we!"
"I thank God, Willie, you are not called upon for any such sacrifice."
"Ah, little mother, well you may!" he answered, smiling, and taking her hand,—"well you may, for I am afraid I should fall dreadfully short when the time came; and then how ashamed you'd be of your big boy, who took his ease at home, with the great drums beating and the trumpets blowing outside. And yet—I should like to be tried!"
"See, mother!" he broke out again,—"see what a life it is, getting and spending, living handsomely and doing the proper thing towards society, and all that,—rubbing through the world in the old hereditary way; though I needn't growl at it, for I enjoy it enough, and find it a pleasant enough way, Heaven knows. Lazy idler! enjoying the sunshine with the rest. Heigh-ho!"
"You have your profession, Willie. There's work there, and opportunity sufficient to help others and do for yourself."
"Ay, and I'll do it! But there is so much that is poor and mean, and base and tricky, in it all,—so much to disgust and tire one,—all the time, day after day, for years. Now if it were only a huge giant that stands in your way, you could out rapier and have at him at once, and there an end,—laid out or triumphant. That's worth while!"
"O youth, eager and beautiful," thought the mother who listened, "that in this phase is so alike the world over,—so impatient to do, so ready to brave encounters, so willing to dare and die! May the doing be faithful, and the encounters be patiently as well as bravely fought, and the fancy of heroic death be a reality of noble and earnest life. God grant it! Amen."
"Meanwhile," said the gay voice,—"meanwhile it's a pleasant world; let us enjoy it! and as to do this is within the compass of a man's wit, therefore will I attempt the doing."
While he was talking he had once more come to the window, and, looking out, fastened his eyes unconsciously but intently upon the face of a young girl who was slowly passing by,—unconsciously, yet so intently that, as if suddenly magnetized, a flicker of feeling went over it; the mouth, set with a steady sweetness, quivered a little; the eyes—dark, beautiful eyes—were lifted to his an instant, that was all. The mother beside him did not see; but she heard a long breath, almost a sigh, break from him as he started, then flashed out of the room, snatching his hat in the hall, and so on to the street, and away.
Away after her, through block after block, across the crowded avenue to Broadway. "Who is she? where did she come from? I never saw her before. I wonder if Mrs. Russell knows her, or Clara, or anybody! I will know where she lives, or where she is going at least,—that will be some clew! There! she is stopping that stage. I'll help her in! no, I won't,—she will think I am chasing her. Nonsense! do you suppose she saw you at the window? Of course! No, she didn't; don't be a fool! There! I'll get into the next stage. Now I'll keep watch of that, and she'll not know. So—all right! Go ahead, driver." And happy with some new happiness, eager, bright, the handsome young fellow sat watching that other stage, and the stylish little lace bonnet that was all he could see of his magnet, through the interminable journey down Broadway.
How clear the air seemed! and the sun, how splendidly it shone! and what a glad look was upon all the people's faces! He felt like breaking out into gay little snatches of song, and moved his foot to the waltz measure that beat time in his brain till the irate old gentleman opposite, whom nature had made of a sour complexion and art assisted to corns, broke out with an angry exclamation. That drew his attention for a moment. A slackening of speed, a halt, and the stage was wedged in one of the inextricable "jams" on Broadway. Vain the search for her stage then; looking over the backs of the poor, tired horses, or from the sidewalk,—here, there, at this one and that one,—all for naught! Stage and passenger, eyes, little lace bonnet, and all, had vanished away, as William Surrey confessed, and confessed with reluctance and discontent.
"No matter!" he said presently,—"no matter! I shall see her again. I know it! I feel it! It is written in the book of the Fates! So now I shall content me with something"—that looks like her he did not say definitely, but felt it none the less, as, going over to the flower-basket near by, he picked out a little nosegay of mignonette and geranium, with a tea-rosebud in its centre, and pinned it at his button-hole. "Delicate and fine!" he thought,—"delicate and fine!" and with the repetition he looked from it down the long street after the interminable line of stages; and somehow the faint, sweet perfume, and the fair flower, and the dainty lace bonnet, were mingled in wild and charming confusion in his brain, till he shook himself, and laughed at himself, and quoted Shakespeare to excuse himself,—"A mad world, my masters!"—seeing this poor old earth of ours, as people always do, through their own eyes.
"God bless ye! and long life to yer honor! and may the blessed Virgin give ye the desire of yer heart!" called the Irishwoman after him, as he put back the change in her hand and went gayly up the street. "Sure, he's somebody's darlint, the beauty! the saints preserve him!" she said, as she looked from the gold piece in her palm to the fair, sunny head, watching it till it was lost in the crowd from her grateful eyes.
Evidently this young man was a favorite, for, as he passed along, many a face, worn by business and care, brightened as he smiled and spoke; many a countenance stamped with the trade-mark, preoccupied and hard, relaxed in a kindly recognition as he bowed and went by; and more than one found time, even in that busy whirl, to glance for a moment after him, or to remember him with a pleasant feeling, at least till the pavement had been crossed on which they met,—a long space at that hour of the day, and with so much more important matters—Bull and Bear, rise and fall, stock and account—claiming their attention.
Evidently a favorite, for, turning off into one of the side streets, coming into his father's huge foundry, faces heated and dusty, tired, stained, and smoke-begrimed, glanced up from their work, from forge and fire and engine, with an expression that invited a look or word,—and look and word were both ready.
"The boss is out, sir," said one of the foremen, "and if you please, and have got the time to spare, I'd like to have a word with you before he comes in."
"All right, Jim! say your say."
"Well, sir, you'll likely think I'm sticking my nose into what doesn't concern me. 'Tain't a very nice thing I've got to say, but if I don't say it I don't know who in thunder will; and, as it's my private opinion that somebody ought to, I'll just pitch in."
"Very good; pitch in."
"Very good it is then. Only it ain't. Very bad, more like. It's a nasty mess, and no mistake! and there's the cause of it!" pointing his brawny hand towards the door, upon which was marked, "Office. Private," and sniffing as though he smelt something bad in the air.
"You don't mean my father!" flame shooting from the clear eyes.
"Be damned if I do. Beg pardon. Of course I don't. I mean the fellow as is perched up on a high stool in that there office, this very minute, poking into his books."
"You've hit it. Franklin,—Abe Franklin,—that's the ticket."
"What's the matter with him? what has he done?"
"Done? nothing! not as I know of, anyway, except what's right and proper. 'Tain't what he's done or's like to do. It's what he is."
"And what may that be?"
"Well, he's a nigger! there's the long and short of it. Nobody here'd object to his working in this place, providing he was a runner, or an errand-boy, or anything that it's right and proper for a nigger to be; but to have him sitting in that office, writing letters for the boss, and going over the books, and superintending the accounts of the fellows, so that he knows just what they get on Saturday nights, and being as fine as a fiddle, is what the boys won't stand; and they swear they'll leave, every man of 'em, unless he has his walking papers,—double-quick too."
"Very well; let them. There are other workmen, good as they, in this city of New York."
"Hold on, sir! let me say my say first. There are seven hundred men working in this place: the most of 'em have worked here a long while. Good work, good pay. There ain't a man of 'em but likes Mr. Surrey, and would be sorry to lose the place; so, if they won't bear it, there ain't any that will. Wait a bit! I ain't through yet."
"Go on,"—quietly enough spoken, but the mouth shook under its silky fringe, and a fiery spot burned on either cheek.
"All right. Well, sir, I know all about Franklin. He's a bright one, smart enough to stock a lot of us with brains and have some to spare; he don't interfere with us, and does his work well, too, I reckon,—though that's neither here nor there, nor none of our business if the boss is satisfied; and he looks like a gentleman, and acts like one, there's no denying that! and as for his skin,—well!" a smile breaking over his good-looking face, "his skin's quite as white as mine now, anyway," smearing his red-flannel arm over his grimy phiz; "but then, sir, it won't rub off. He's a nigger, and there's no getting round it.
"All right, sir! give you your chance directly. Don't speak yet,—ain't through, if you please. Well, sir, it's agen nature,—you may talk agen it, and work agen it, and fight agen it till all's blue, and what good'll it do? You can't get an Irishman, and, what's more, a free-born American citizen, to put himself on a level with a nigger,—not by no manner of means. No, sir; you can turn out the whole lot, and get another after it, and another after that, and so on to the end of the chapter, and you can't find men among 'em all that'll stay and have him strutting through 'em, up to his stool and his books, grand as a peacock."
"Would they work with him?"
"At the same engines, and the like, do you mean?"
"Nary time, so 'tain't likely they'll work under him. Now, sir, you see I know what I'm saying, and I'm saying it to you, Mr. Surrey, and not to your father, because he won't take a word from me nor nobody else,—and here's just the case. Now I ain't bullying, you understand, and I say it because somebody else'd say it, if I didn't, uglier and rougher. Abe Franklin'll have to go out of this shop in precious short order, or every man here'll bolt next Saturday night. There! now I've done, sir, and you can fire away."
But as he showed no signs of "firing away," and stood still, pondering, Jim broke out again:—
"Beg pardon, sir. If I've said anything you don't like, sorry for it. It's because Mr. Surrey is so good an employer, and, if you'll let me say so, because I like you so well," glancing over him admiringly,—"for, you see, a good engineer takes to a clean-built machine wherever he sees it,—it's just because of this I thought it was better to tell you, and get you to tell the boss, and to save any row; for I'd hate mortally to have it in this shop where I've worked, man and boy, so many years. Will you please to speak to him, sir? and I hope you understand."
"Thank you, Jim. Yes, I understand; and I'll speak to him."
Was it that the sun was going down, or that some clouds were in the sky, or had the air of the shop oppressed him? Whatever it was, as he came out he walked with a slower step from which some of the spring had gone, and the people's faces looked not so happy; and, glancing down at his rosebud, he saw that its fair petals had been soiled by the smoke and grime in which he had been standing; and, while he looked a dead march came solemnly sounding up the street, and a soldier's funeral went by,—rare enough, in that autumn of 1860, to draw a curious crowd on either side; rare enough to make him pause and survey it; and as the line turned into another street, and the music came softened to his ear, he once more hummed the words of the song which had been haunting him all the day:—
"Then mounte! then mounte, brave gallants, all, And don your helmes amaine; Death's couriers, Fame and Honor, call Us to the field againe,"—
sang them to himself, but not with the gay, bright spirit of the morning. Then he seemed to see the cavaliers, brilliant and brave, riding out to the encounter. Now, in the same dim and fanciful way, he beheld them stretched, still and dead, upon the plain.
"Thou—drugging pain by patience."
"Laces cleaned, and fluting and ruffling done here,"—that was what the little sign swinging outside the little green door said. And, coming under it into the cosey little rooms, you felt this was just the place in which to leave things soiled and torn, and come back to find them, by some mysterious process, immaculate and whole.
Two rooms, with folding-doors between, in which through the day stood a counter, cut up on the one side into divers pigeon-holes rilled with small boxes and bundles, carefully pinned and labelled,—owner's name, time left, time to be called for, money due; neat and nice as a new pin, as every one said who had any dealings there.
The counter was pushed back now, as always after seven o'clock, for the people who came in the evening were few; and then, when that was out of the way, it seemed more home-like and less shoppy, as Mrs. Franklin said every night, as she straightened things out, and peered through the window or looked from the front door, and wondered if "Abram weren't later than usual," though she knew right well he was punctual as clock-work,—good clock-work too,—when he was going to his toil or hurrying back to his home.
Pleasant little rooms, with the cleanest and brightest of rag carpets on the floor; a paper on the walls, cheap enough, but gay with scarlet rosebuds and green leaves, rivalled by the vines and berries on the pretty chintz curtains; chairs of a dozen ages and patterns, but all of them with open, inviting countenances and a hospitable air; a wood fire that looked like a wood fire crackling and sparkling on the hearth, shining and dancing over the ceiling and the floor and the walls, cutting queer capers with the big rocking-chair,—which turned into a giant with long arms,—and with the little figures on the mantel-shelf, and the books in their cases, softening and glorifying the two grand faces hanging in their frames opposite, and giving just light enough below them to let you read "John Brown" and "Phillips," if you had any occasion to read, and did not know those whom the world knows; and first and last, and through all, as if it loved her, and was loath to part with her for a moment, whether she poked the flame, or straightened a chair, or went out towards the little kitchen to lift a lid and smell a most savory stew, or came back to the supper-table to arrange and rearrange what was already faultless in its cleanliness and simplicity, wherever she went and whatever she did, this firelight fell warm about a woman, large and comfortable and handsome, with a motherly look to her person, and an expression that was all kindness in her comely face and dark, soft eyes,—eyes and face and form, though, that might as well have had "Pariah" written all over them, and "leper" stamped on their front, for any good, or beauty, or grace, that people could find in them; for the comely face was a dark face, and the voice, singing an old Methodist hymn, was no Anglo-Saxon treble, but an Anglo-African voice, rich and mellow, with the touch of pathos or sorrow always heard in these tones.
"There!" she said, "there he is!" as a step, hasty yet halting, was heard on the pavement; and, turning up the light, she ran quickly to open the door, which, to be sure, was unfastened, and to give the greeting to her "boy," which, through many a year, had never been omitted.
Her boy,—you would have known that as soon as you saw him,—the same eyes, same face, the same kindly look; but the face was thinner and finer, and the brow was a student's brow, full of thought and speculation; and, looking from her hearty, vigorous form, you saw that his was slight to attenuation.
"Sit down, sonny, sit down and rest. There! how tired you look!" bustling round him, smoothing his thin face and rough hair. "Now don't do that! let your old mother do it!" It pleased her to call herself old, though she was but just in her prime. "You've done enough for one day, I'm sure, waiting on other people, and walking with your poor lame foot till you're all but beat out. You be quiet now, and let somebody else wait on you." And, going down on her knees, she took up the lame foot, and began to unlace the cork-soled, high-cut shoe, and, drawing it out, you saw that it was shrunken and small, and that the leg was shorter than its fellow.
"Poor little foot!" rubbing it tenderly, smoothing the stocking over it, and chafing it to bring warmth and life to its surface. Her "baby," she called it, for it was no bigger than when he was a little fellow. "Poor, tired foot! ain't it a dreadful long walk, sonny?"
"Pretty long, mother; but I'd take twice that to do such work at the end."
"Yes, indeed, it's good work, and Mr. Surrey's a good man, and a kind one, that's sure! I only wish some others had a little of his spirit. Such a shame to have you dragging all the way up here, when any dirty fellow that wants to can ride. I don't mind for myself so much, for I can walk about spry enough yet, and don't thank them for their old omnibuses nor cars; but it's too bad for you, so it is,—too bad!"
"Never mind, mother! keep a brave heart. 'There's a good time coming soon, a good time coming!' as I heard Mr. Hutchinson sing the other night,—and it's true as gospel."
"Maybe it is, sonny!" dubiously, "but I don't see it,—not a sign of it,—no indeed, not one! It gets worse and worse all the time, and it takes a deal of faith to hold on; but the good Lord knows best, and it'll be right after a while, anyhow! And now that's straight!" pulling a soft slipper on the lame foot, and putting its mate by his side; then going off to pour out the tea, and dish up the stew, and add a touch or two to the appetizing supper-table.
"It's as good as a feast,"—taking a bite out of her nice home-made bread,—"better'n a feast, to think of you in that place; and I can't scarcely realize it yet. It seems too fine to be true."
"That's the way I've felt all the month, mother! It has been just like a dream to me, and I keep thinking surely I'm asleep and will waken to find this is just an air-castle I've been building, or 'a vision of the night,' as the good book says."
"Well, it's a blessed vision, sure enough! and I hope to the good Lord it'll last;—but you won't if you make a vision of your supper in that way. You just eat, Abram! and have done your talking till you're through, if you can't do both at once. Talking's good, but eating's better when you're hungry; and it's my opinion you ought to be hungry, if you ain't."
So the teacups were filled and emptied, and the spoons clattered, and the stew was eaten, and the baked potatoes devoured, and the bread-and-butter assaulted vigorously, and general havoc made with the good things and substantial things before and between them; and then, this duty faithfully performed, the wreck speedily vanished away; and cups and forks, spoons and plates, knives and dishes, cleaned and cupboarded, Mrs. Franklin came, and, drawing away the book over which he was poring, said, while she smoothed face and hair once more, "Come, Abram, what is it?"
"What's what, mother?" with a little laugh.
"Something ails you, sonny. That's plain enough. I know when anything's gone wrong with ye, sure, and something's gone wrong to-day."
"O mother! you worry about me too much, indeed you do. If I'm a little tired or out of sorts,—which I haven't any right to be, not here,—or quiet, or anything, you think somebody's been hurting me, or abusing me, or that everything's gone wrong with me, when I do well enough all the time."
"Now, Abram, you can't deceive me,—not that way. My eyes is mother's eyes, and they see plain enough, where you're concerned, without spectacles. Who's been putting on you to-day? Somebody. You don't carry that down look in your face and your eyes for nothing, I found that out long ago, and you've got it on to-night."
"Don't you 'O mother' me! I ain't going to be put off in that way, Abram, an' you needn't think it. Has Mr. Surrey been saying anything hard to you?"
"No, indeed, mother; you needn't ask that."
"Nor none of the foremen?"
"Has Snipe been round?"
"Hasn't been near the office since Mr. Surrey dismissed him."
"Met him anywhere?"
"Nein!" laughing, "I haven't laid eyes on him."
"Well, the men have been saying or doing something then."
"N-no; why, what an inquisitor it is!"
"'N-no.' You don't say that full and plain, Abram. Something has been going wrong with the men. Now what is it? Come, out with it."
"Well, mother, if you will know, you will, I suppose; and, as you never get tired of the story, I'll go over the whole tale.
"So long as I was Mr. Surrey's office-boy, to make his fires, and sweep and dust, and keep things in order, the men were all good enough to me after their fashion; and if some of them growled because they thought he favored me, Mr. Given, or some one said, 'O, you know his mother was a servant of Mrs. Surrey for no end of years, and of course Mr. Surrey has a kind of interest in him'; and that put everything straight again.
"Well! you know how good Mr. Willie has been to me ever since we were little boys in the same house,—he in the parlor and I in the kitchen; the books he's given me, and the chances he's made me, and the way he's put me in of learning and knowing. And he's been twice as kind to me ever since I refused that offer of his."
"Yes, I know, but tell me about it again."
"Well, Mr. Surrey sent me up to the house one day, just while Mr. Willie was at home from college, and he stopped me and had a talk with me, and asked me in his pleasant way, not as if I were a 'nigger,' but just as he'd talk to one of his mates, ever so many questions about myself and my studies and my plans; and I told him what I wanted,—how hard you worked, and how I hoped to fit myself to go into some little business of my own, not a barber-shop, or any such thing, but something that'd support you and keep you like a lady after while, and that would help me and my people at the same time. For, of course," I said, "every one of us that does anything more than the world expects us to do, or better, makes the world think so much the more and better of us all."
"What did he say to that?"
"I wish you'd seen him! He pushed back that beautiful hair of his, and his eyes shone, and his mouth trembled, though I could see he tried hard to hold it still, and put up his hand to cover it; and he said, in a solemn sort of way, 'Franklin, you've opened a window for me, and I sha'n't forget what I see through it to-day.' And then he offered to set me up in some business at once, and urged hard when I declined."
"Say it all over again, sonny; what was it you told him?"
"I said that would do well enough for a white man; that he could help, and the white man be helped, just as people were being and doing all the time, and no one would think a thought about it. But, sir," I said, "everybody says we can do nothing alone; that we're a poor, shiftless set; and it will be just one of the master race helping a nigger to climb and to stand where he couldn't climb or stand alone, and I'd rather fight my battle alone."
"Yes, yes! well, go on, go on. I like to hear what followed."
"Well, there was just a word or two more, and then he put out his hand and shook mine, and said good by. It was the first time I ever shook hands with a white gentleman. Some white hands have shaken mine, but they always made me feel that they were white and that mine was black, and that it was a condescension. I felt that, when they didn't mean I should. But there was nothing between us. I didn't think of his skin, and, for once in my life, I quite forgot I was black, and didn't remember it again till I got out on the street and heard a dirty little ragamuffin cry, 'Hi! hi! don't that nagur think himself foine?' I suspect, in spite of my lameness, I had been holding up my head and walking like a man."
In spite of his lameness he was holding up his head and walking like a man now; up and down and across the little room, trembling, excited, the words rushing in an eager flow from his mouth. His mother sat quietly rocking herself and knitting. She knew in this mood there was nothing to be said to him; and, indeed, what had she to say save that which would add fuel to the flame?
"Well!"—a long sigh,—"after that Mr. Surrey doubled my wages, and was kinder to me than ever, and watched me, as I saw, quite closely; and that was the way he found out about Mr. Snipe.
"You see Mr. Snipe had been very careless about keeping the books; would come down late in the mornings, just before Mr. Surrey came in, and go away early in the afternoons, as soon as he had left. Of course, the books got behindhand every month, and Mr. Snipe didn't want to stay and work overhours to make them up. One day he found out, by something I said, that I understood bookkeeping, and tried me, and then got me to take them home at night and go over them. I didn't know then how bad he was doing, and that I had no business to shield him, and all went smooth enough till the day I was too sick to get down to the office, and two of the books were at home. Then Mr. Surrey discovered the whole thing. There was a great row, it seems; and Mr. Surrey examined the books, and found, as he was pleased to say, that I'd kept them in first-rate style; so he dismissed Mr. Snipe on the spot, with six months' pay,—for you know he never does anything by halves,—and put me in his place.
"The men don't like it, I know, and haven't liked it, but of course they can't say anything to him, and they haven't said anything to me; but I've seen all along that they looked at me with no friendly eyes, and for the last day or two I've heard a word here and there which makes me think there's trouble brewing,—bad enough, I'm afraid; maybe to the losing of my place, though Mr. Surrey has said nothing about it to me."
Just here the little green door opened, and the foreman whom we have before seen—James Given as the register had him entered, Jim Given as every one knew him—came in; no longer with grimy face and flannel sleeves, but brave in all his Sunday finery, and as handsome a b'hoy, they said, at his engine-house, as any that ran with the machine; having on his arm a young lady whom he apostrophized as Sallie, as handsome and brave as he.
"Evening,"—a nod of the head accompanying. "Miss Howard's traps done?"
"I wish you wouldn't say 'traps,' Jim," corrected Sallie, sotto voce: "it's not proper. It's for a collar and pair of cuffs, Mrs. Franklin," she added aloud, putting down a little check.
"Not proper! goodness gracious me! there spoke Snipe! Come, Sallie, you've pranced round with that stuck-up jackanapes till you're getting spoiled entirely, so you are, and I scarcely know you. Not proper,—O my!"
"Spoiled, am I? Thank you, sir, for the compliment! And you don't know me at all,—don't you? Very well, then I'll say good night, and leave; for it wouldn't be proper to take a young lady you don't know to the theatre,—now, would it? Good by!"—making for the door.
"Now don't, Sallie, please."
"Don't talk that way."
"Don't yourself, more like. You're just as cross as cross can be, and disagreeable, and hateful,—all because I happen to know there's some other man in the world besides yourself, and smile at him now and then. 'Don't,' indeed!"
"Come, Sallie, you're too hard on a fellow. It's your own fault, you know well enough, if you will be so handsome. Now, if you were an ugly old girl, or I was certain of you, I shouldn't feel so bad, nor act so neither. But when there's a lot of hungry chaps round, all gaping to gobble you up, and even poor little Snipes trying to peck and bite at you, and you won't say 'yes' nor 'no' to me, how do you expect a man to keep cool? Can't do it, nohow, and you needn't ask it. Human nature's human nature, I suppose, and mine ain't a quiet nor a patient one, not by no manner of means. Come, Sallie, own up; you wouldn't like me so well as I hope you do if it was,—now, would you?"
Mrs. Franklin smiled, though she had heard not a word of the lovers' quarrel, as she put a pin in the back of the ruffled collar which Sallie had come to reclaim. A quarrel it had evidently been, and as evidently the lady was mollified, for she said, "Don't be absurd, Jim!" and Jim laughed and responded, "All right, Sallie, you're an angel! But come, we must hurry, or the curtain'll be up,"—and away went the dashing and handsome couple.
Abram, shutting in the shutters, and fastening the door, sat down to a quiet evening's reading, while his mother knitted and sewed,—an evening the likeness of a thousand others of which they never tired; for this mother and son, to whom fate had dealt so hard a measure, upon whom the world had so persistently frowned, were more to each other than most mothers and sons whose lines had fallen in pleasanter places,—compensation, as Mr. Emerson says, being the law of existence the world over.
"Every one has his day, from which he dates."
You see, Surrey, the school is something extra, and the performances, and it will please Clara no end; so I thought I'd run over, and inveigled you into going along for fear it should be stupid, and I would need some recreation."
"Which I am to afford?"
"As clown or grindstone?—to make laugh, or sharpen your wits upon?"
"Far be it from me to dictate. Whichever suits our character best. On the whole, I think the last would be the most appropriate; the first I can swear wouldn't!"
"O, a woman's reason,—because!"
"Because why? Am I cross?"
"As usual,—like a May breeze."
"'A countenance [and manner] more in sorrow than in anger.' Something's wrong with you; who is she?"
"Ay,—she. That was a wise Eastern king who put at the bottom of every trouble and mischief a woman."
"Correct one. Evidently he had studied the genus thoroughly, and had a poor opinion of it."
"Amazing! you say 'no wonder'! Astounding words! speak them again."
"No wonder,—seeing that he had a mother, and that she had such a son. He must needs have been a bad fellow or a fool to have originated so base a philosophy, and how then could he respect the source of such a stream as himself?"
"Sir Launcelot,—squire of dames!"
"Not Sir Launcelot, but squire of dames, I hope."
"There you go again! Now I shall query once more, who is she?"
"No, though by your smiling you would seem to say so!"
"Nay, I believe you, and am vastly relieved in the believing. Take advice from ten years of superior age, and fifty of experience, and have naught to do with them. Dost hear?"
"And will heed?"
"Which?—the words or the acts of my counsellor? who, of a surety, preaches wisely and does foolishly, or who does wisely and preaches foolishly; for preaching and practice do not agree."
"Nay, man, thou art unreasonable; to perform either well is beyond the capacity of most humans, and I desire not to be blessed above my betters. Then let my rash deeds and my prudent words both be teachers unto thee. But if it be true that no woman is responsible for your grave countenance this morning, then am I wasting words, and will return to our muttons. What ails you?"
"I am belligerent."
"I see,—that means quarrelsome."
"Bad,—very! belligerent and hopeless! When you go into a fight always expect to win; the thought is half the victory."
"Suppose you are an atom against the universe?" "Don't fight, succumb. There's a proverb,—a wise one,—Napoleon's, 'God is on the side of the strongest battalions.'"
"A lie,—exploded at Waterloo. There's another proverb, 'One on the side of God is a majority.' How about that?"
"A truth demonstrated at Wittenberg."
"Are you aching for the martyr's palm?"
"I am afraid not. On the whole, I think I'd rather enjoy life than quarrel with it. But"—with a sudden blaze—"I feel to-day like fighting the world."
"Hey, presto! what now, young'un?"
"I don't wonder you stare"—a little laugh. "I'm talking like a fool, and, for aught I know, feeling like one, aching to fight, and knowing that I might as well quarrel with the winds, or stab that water as it flows by."
"As with what?"
"The fellow I've just been getting a good look at."
"What manner of fellow?"
"Ignorant, selfish, brutal, devilish."
"Tremendous! why don't you bind him over to keep the peace?"
"Because he is like the judge of old time, neither fears God nor respects his image,—when his image is carved in ebony, and not ivory."
"What do you call this fellow?"
"This big fellow is abusing and devouring a poor little chap, eh? and the chap's black?"
"And sometimes the giant is a gentleman in purple and fine linen, otherwise broadcloth; and sometimes in hodden gray, otherwise homespun or slop-shop; and sometimes he cuts the poor little chap with a silver knife, which is rhetoric, and sometimes with a wooden spoon, which is raw-hide. Am I stating it all correctly?"
"And you've been watching this operation when you had better have been minding your own business, and getting excited when you had better have kept cool, and now want to rush into the fight, drums beating and colors flying, to the rescue of the small one. Don't deny it,—it's all written out in your eyes."
"I sha'n't deny it, except about the business and the keeping cool. It's any gentleman's business to interfere between a bully and a weakling that he's abusing; and his blood must be water that does not boil while he 'watches the operation' as you say, and goes in."
"To get well pommelled for his pains, and do no good to any one, himself included. Let the weakling alone. A fellow that can't save himself is not worth saving. If he can't swim nor walk, let him drop under or go to the wall; that's my theory."
"Anglo-Saxon theory—and practice."
"Good theory, excellent practice,—in the main. What special phase of it has been disturbing your equanimity?"
"You know the Franklins?"
"Of course: Aunt Mina's son—what's his name?—is a sort of protege of yours, I believe: what of him?"
"He is cleanly?"
"A nice question. Doubtless."
"What are you driving at?"
"Or his looks belie him."
"Faithful, trusty, active, helpful, in every way devoted to my father's service and his work."
"With Sancho, I believe it all because your worship says so."
"Well, this man has just been discharged from my father's employ because seven hundred and forty-two other men gave notice to quit if he remained."
"The reason is not 'so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but it is enough.' Of course they wouldn't work with him, and my uncle Surrey, begging your pardon, should not have attempted anything so Quixotic."
"His skin covering so many excellent qualities, and these qualities gaining recognition,—that was the cause. They worked with him so long as he was a servant of servants: so soon as he demonstrated that he could strike out strongly and swim, they knocked him under; and, proving that he could walk alone, they ran hastily to shove him to the wall."
"What! quoting my own words against me?"
"Anglo-Saxon says we are the masters: we monopolize the strength and courage, the beauty, intelligence, power. These creatures,—what are they? poor, worthless, lazy, ignorant, good for nothing but to be used as machines, to obey. When lo! one of these dumb machines suddenly starts forth with a man's face; this creature no longer obeys, but evinces a right to command; and Anglo-Saxon speedily breaks him in pieces."
"Come, Willie, I hope you're not going to assert these people our equals,—that would be too much."
"They have no intelligence, Anglo-Saxon declares,—then refuses them schools, while he takes of their money to help educate his own sons. They have no ambition,—then closes upon them every door of honorable advancement, and cries through the key-hole, Serve, or starve. They cannot stand alone, they have no faculty for rising,—then, if one of them finds foothold, the ground is undermined beneath him. If a head is seen above the crowd, the ladder is jerked away, and he is trampled into the dust where he is fallen. If he stays in the position to which Anglo-Saxon assigns him, he is a worthless nigger; if he protests against it, he is an insolent nigger; if he rises above it, he is a nigger not to be tolerated at all,—to be crushed and buried speedily."
"Now, Willie, 'no more of this, an thou lovest me.' I came not out to-day to listen to an abolition harangue, nor a moral homily, but to have a good time, to be civil and merry withal, if you will allow it. Of course you don't like Franklin's discharge, and of course you have done something to compensate him. I know—you have found him another place. No,—you couldn't do that?
"No, I couldn't."
"Well, you've settled him somewhere,—confess."
"He has some work for the present; some copying for me, and translating, for this unfortunate is a scholar, you know."
"Very good; then let it rest. Granted the poor devils have a bad time of it, you're not bound to sacrifice yourself for them. If you go on at this pace, you'll bring up with the long-haired, bloomer reformers, and then—God help you. No, you needn't say another word,—I sha'n't listen,—not one; so. Here we are! school yonder,—well situated?"
"Clara will be charmed to see you."
"You flatter me. I hope so."
"There, now you talk rationally. Don't relapse. We will go up and hear the pretty creatures read their little pieces, and sing their little songs, and see them take their nice blue-ribboned diplomas, and fall in love with their dear little faces, and flirt a bit this evening, and to-morrow I shall take Ma'm'selle Clara home to Mamma Russell, and you may go your ways."
"The programme is satisfactory."
"Good. Come on then."
All Commencement days, at college or young ladies' school, if not twin brothers and sisters, are at least first cousins, with a strong family likeness. Who that has passed through one, or witnessed one, needs any description thereof to furbish up its memories. This of Professor Hale's belonged to the great tribe, and its form and features were of the old established type. The young ladies were charming; plenty of white gowns, plenty of flowers, plenty of smiles, blushes, tremors, hopes, and fears; little songs, little pieces, little addresses, to be sung, to be played, to be read, just as Tom Russell had foreshadowed, and proving to be—
"Just the least of a bore!" as he added after listening awhile; "don't you think so, Surrey?"
"Hush! don't talk."
Tom stared; then followed his cousin's eye, fixed immovably upon one little spot on the platform. "By Jove!" he cried, "what a beauty! As Father Dryden would say, 'this is the porcelain clay of humankind.' No wonder you look. Who is she,—do you know?"
"No! short, clear, and decisive. Don't devour her, Will. Remember the sermon I preached you an hour ago. Come, look at this,"—thrusting a programme into his face,—"and stop staring. Why, boy, she has bewitched you,—or inspired you,"—surveying him sharply.
And indeed it would seem so. Eyes, mouth, face, instinct with some subtle and thrilling emotion. As gay Tom Russell looked, he involuntarily stretched out his hand, as one would put it between another and some danger of which that other is unaware, and remembered what he had once said in talking of him,—"If Will Surrey's time does come, I hope the girl will be all right in every way, for he'll plunge headlong, and love like distraction itself,—no half-way; it will be a life-and-death affair for him." "Come, I must break in on this."
"There's a pretty girl."
"There! over yonder. Third seat, second row. See her? Pretty?"
"Miss—Miss—what's her name? O, Miss Perry played that last thing very well for a school-girl, eh?"
"Admirable room this, for hearing; rare quality with chapels and halls; architects in planning generally tax ingenuity how to confuse sound. Now these girls don't make a great noise, yet you can distinguish every word,—can't you?"
"I say, can't you?"
Tom drew a long breath.
"Professor Hale's a sensible old fellow; I like the way he conducts this school." (Mem. Tom didn't know a thing about it.) "Carries it on excellently." A pause.
"Fine-looking, too. A man's physique has a deal to do with his success in the world. If he carries a letter of recommendation in his face, people take him on trust to begin with; and if he's a big fellow, like the Professor yonder, he imposes on folks awfully; they pop down on their knees to him, and clear the track for him, as if he had a right to it all. Bless me! I never thought of that before,—it's the reason you and I have got on so swimmingly,—is it not, now? Certainly. You think so? Of course."
"Of course,"—sedately and gravely spoken.
Tom groaned, for, with a face kind and bright, he was yet no beauty; while if Surrey had one crowning gift in this day of fast youths and self-satisfied Young America, it was that of modesty with regard to himself and any gifts and graces nature had blessed him withal.
"Clara has a nice voice."
"She is to sing, do you know?"
"Do you know when?"
"She sings the next piece. Are you ready to listen?"
"Good Lord!" cried Tom, in despair, "the fellow has lost his wits. He has turned parrot; he has done nothing but repeat my words for me since he sat here. He's an echo."
"Echo of nothingness?" queried the parrot, smilingly.
"Ah, you've come to yourself, have you? Capital! now stay awake. There's Clara to sing directly, and you are to cheer her, and look as if you enjoyed it, and throw her that bouquet when I tell you, and let her think it's a fine thing she has been doing; for this is a tremendous affair to her, poor child, of course."
"How bright and happy she is! You will laugh at me, Tom, and indeed I don't know what has come over me, but somehow I feel quite sad, looking at those girls, and wondering what fate and time have in store for them."
"Sunshine and bright hours."
"The day cometh, and also the night,"—broke in the clear voice that was reading a selection from the Scriptures.
Tom started, and Willie took from his button-hole just such a little nosegay as that he had bought on Broadway a fortnight before,—a geranium leaf, a bit of mignonette, and a delicate tea-rosebud, and, seeing it was drooping, laid it carefully upon the programme on his knee. "I don't want that to fade," he thought as he put it down, while he looked across the platform at the same face which he had so eagerly pursued through a labyrinth of carriages, stages, and people, and lost at last.
"There! Clara is talking to your beauty. I wonder if she is to sing, or do anything. If she does, it will be something dainty and fine, I'll wager. Helloa! there's Clara up,—now for it."
Clara's bright little voice suited her bright little face,—like her brother's, only a great deal prettier,—and the young men enjoyed both, aside from brotherly and cousinly feeling, cheered her "to the echo" as Willie said, threw their bouquets,—great, gorgeous things they had brought from the city to please her,—and wished there was more of it all when it was through.
"What next?" said Willie.
"Heaven preserve us! your favorite subject. Who would expect to tumble on such a theme here?—'Slavery; by Francesca Ercildoune.' Odd name,—and, by Jove! it's the beauty herself."
They both leaned forward eagerly as she came from her seat; slender, shapely, every fibre fine and exquisite, no coarse graining from the dainty head to the dainty foot; the face, clear olive, delicate and beautiful,—
"The mouth with steady sweetness set, And eyes conveying unaware The distant hint of some regret That harbored there,"—
eyes deep, tender, and pathetic.
"What's this?" said Tom. "Queer. It gives me a heartache to look at her."
"A woman for whom to fight the world, or lose the world, and be compensated a million-fold if you died at her feet," thought Surrey, and said nothing.
"What a strange subject for her to select!" broke in Tom.
It was a strange one for the time and place, and she had been besought to drop it, and take another; but it should be that or nothing, she asserted,—so she was left to her own device.
Oddly treated, too. Tom thought it would be a pretty lady-like essay, and said so; then sat astounded at what he saw and heard. Her face—this schoolgirl's face—grew pallid, her eyes mournful, her voice and manner sublime, as she summoned this Monster to the bar of God's justice and the humanity of the world; as she arraigned it; as she brought witness after witness to testify against it; as she proved its horrible atrocities and monstrous barbarities; as she went on to the close, and, lifting hand and face and voice together, thrilled out, "I look backward into the dim, distant past, but it is one night of oppression and despair; I turn to the present, but I hear naught save the mother's broken-hearted shriek, the infant's wail, the groan wrung from the strong man in agony; I look forward into the future, but the night grows darker, the shadows deeper and longer, the tempest wilder, and involuntarily I cry out, 'How long, O God, how long?'"
"Heavens! what an actress she would make!" said somebody before them.
"That's genius," said somebody behind them; "but what a subject to waste it upon!"
"Very bad taste, I must say, to talk about such a thing here," said somebody beside them. "However, one can excuse a great deal to beauty like that."
Surrey sat still, and felt as though he were on fire, filled with an insane desire to seize her in one arm like a knight of old, and hew his way through these beings, and out of this place, into some solitary spot where he could seat her and kneel at her feet, and die there if she refused to take him up; filled with all the sweet, extravagant, delicious pain that thrills the heart, full of passion and purity, of a young man who begins to love the first, overwhelming, only love of a lifetime.
"'Tis an old tale, and often told."
SIR WALTER SCOTT
That evening some people who were near them were talking about it, and that made Tom ask Clara if her friend was in the habit of doing startling things.
"Should you think so to look at her now?" queried Clara, looking across the room to where Miss Ercildoune stood.
"Indeed I shouldn't," Tom replied; and indeed no one would who saw her then. "She's as sweet as a sugar-plum," he added, as he continued to look. "What does she mean by getting off such rampant discourses? She never wrote them herself,—don't tell me; at least somebody else put her up to it,—that strong-minded-looking teacher over yonder, for instance. She looks capable of anything, and something worse, in the denouncing way; poor little beauty was her cat's-paw this morning."
"O Tom, how you talk! She is nobody's cat's-paw. I can tell you she does her own thinking and acting too. If you'd just go and do something hateful, or impose on somebody,—one of the waiters, for instance,—you'd see her blaze up, fast enough."
Clara looked puzzled. "I don't know; we have some girls here who are all the time talking about benevolence, and charity, and the like, and they have a little sewing-circle to make up things to be sold for the church mission, or something,—I don't know just what; but Francesca won't go near it."
"Democratic, then, maybe."
"No, she isn't, not a bit. She's a thorough little aristocrat: so exclusive she has nothing to say to the most of us. I wonder she ever took me for a friend, though I do love her dearly."
Tom looked down at his bright little sister, and thought the wonder was not a very great one, but didn't say so; reserving his gallantries for somebody else's sister.
"You seem greatly taken with her, Tom."
"I own the soft impeachment."
"Well, you'll have a fair chance, for she's coming home with me. I wrote to mamma, and she says, bring her by all means,—and Mr. Ercildoune gives his consent; so it is all settled."
"Mr. Ercildoune! is there no Mrs. E.?"
"None,—her mother died long ago; and her father has not been here, so I can't tell you anything about him. There: do you see that elegant-looking lady talking with Professor Hale? that is her aunt, Mrs. Lancaster. She is English, and is here only on a visit. She wants to take Francesca home with her in the spring, but I hope she won't."
"Why, what is it to you?"
"I am afraid she will stay, and then I shall never see her any more."
"And why stay? do you fancy England so very fascinating?"
"No, it is not that; but Francesca don't like America; she's forever saying something witty and sharp about our 'democratic institutions,' as she calls them; and, if you had looked this morning, you'd have seen that she didn't sing The Star-Spangled Banner with the rest of us. Her voice is splendid, and Professor Hale wanted her to lead, as she often does, but she wouldn't sing that, she said,—no, not for anything; and though we all begged, she refused,—flat."
"Shocking! what total depravity! I wonder is she converting Surrey to her heresies."
No, she wasn't; not unless silence is more potent than words; for after they had danced together Surrey brought her to one of the great windows facing towards the sea, and, leaning over her chair, there was stillness between them as their eyes went out into the night.
A wild night! great clouds drifted across the moon, which shone out anon, with light intensified, defining the stripped trees and desolate landscape, and then the beach, and
"Marked with spray The sunken reefs, and far away The unquiet, bright Atlantic plain,"
while through all sounded incessantly the mournful roar of buffeting wind and surging tide; and whether it was the scene, or the solemn undertone of the sea, the dance music, which a little while before had been so gay, sounded like a wail.
How could it be otherwise? Passion is akin to pain. Love never yet penetrated an intense nature and made the heart light; sentiment has its smiles, its blushes, its brightness, its words of fancy and feeling, readily and at will; but when the internal sub-soiling is broken up, the heart swells with a steady and tremendous pressure till the breast feels like bursting; the lips are dumb, or open only to speak upon indifferent themes. Flowers may be played with, but one never yet cared to toy with flame.
There are souls that are created for one another in the eternities, hearts that are predestined each to each, from the absolute necessities of their nature; and when this man and this woman come face to face, these hearts throb and are one; these souls recognize "my master!" "my mistress!" at the first glance, without words uttered or vows pronounced.
These two young lives, so fresh, so beautiful; these beings, in many things such antipodes, so utterly dissimilar in person, so unlike, yet like; their whole acquaintance a glance on a crowded street and these few hours of meeting,—looked into one another's eyes, and felt their whole nature set each to each, as the vast tide "of the bright, rocking ocean sets to shore at the full moon."
These things are possible. Friendship is excellent, and friendship may be called love; but it is not love. It may be more enduring and placidly satisfying in the end; it may be better, and wiser, and more prudent, for acquaintance to beget esteem, and esteem regard, and regard affection, and affection an interchange of peaceful vows: the result, a well-ordered life and home. All this is admirable, no doubt; an owl is a bird when you can get no other; but the love born of a moment, yet born of eternity, which comes but once in a lifetime, and to not one in a thousand lives, unquestioning, unthinking, investigating nothing, proving nothing, sufficient unto itself,—ah, that is divine; and this divine ecstasy filled these two souls.
Unconsciously. They did not define nor comprehend. They listened to the sea where they sat, and felt tears start to their eyes, yet knew not why. They were silent, and thought they talked; or spoke, and said nothing. They danced; and as he held her hand and uttered a few words, almost whispered, the words sounded to the listening ear like a part of the music to which they kept time. They saw a multitude of people, and exchanged the compliments of the evening, yet these people made no more impression upon their thoughts than gossamer would have made upon their hands.
"Come, Francesca!" said Clara Russell, breaking in upon this, "it is not fair for you to monopolize my cousin Will, who is the handsomest man in the room; and it isn't fair for Will to keep you all to himself in this fashion. Here is Tom, ready to scratch out his eyes with vexation because you won't dance with him; and here am I, dying to waltz with somebody who knows my step,—to say nothing of innumerable young ladies and gentlemen who have been casting indignant and beseeching glances this way: so, sir, face about, march!" and away the gay girl went with her prize, leaving Francesca to the tender mercies of half a dozen young men who crowded eagerly round her, and from whom Tom carried her off with triumph and rejoicing.
The evening was over at last, and they were going away. Tom had said good night.
"You are to be in New York, at my uncle's, Clara tells me."
"It is true."
"I may see you there?"
For answer she put out her hand. He took it as he would have taken a delicate flower, laid his other hand softly, yet closely, over it, and, without any adieu spoken, went away.
"Tom always declared Willie was a little queer, and I'm sure I begin to think so," said Clara, as she kissed her friend and departed to her room.
"A breathing sigh, a sigh for answer, A little talking of outward things."
Ah, the weeks that followed! People ate and drank and slept, lived and loved and hated, were born and died,—the same world that it had been a little while before, yet not the same to them,—never to seem quite the same again. A little cloud had fallen between them and it, and changed to their eyes all its proportions and hues.
They were incessantly together, riding, or driving, or walking, looking at pictures, dancing at parties, listening to opera or play.
"It seems to me Will is going it at a pretty tremendous pace somewhere," said Mr. Surrey to his wife, one morning, after this had endured for a space. "It would be well to look into it, and to know something of this girl."
"You are right," she replied. "Yet I have such absolute faith in Willie's fine taste and sense that I feel no anxiety."
"Nor I; yet I shall investigate a bit to-night at Augusta's."
"Clara tells me that when Miss Ercildoune understood it was to be a great party, she insisted on ending her visit, or, at least, staying for a while with her aunt, but they would not hear of it."
"Mrs. Lancaster goes back to England soon?"
"Does any one know aught of Miss Ercildoune's family save that Mrs. Lancaster is her aunt?"
"If 'any one' means me, I understand her father to be a gentleman of elegant leisure,—his home near Philadelphia; a widower, with one other child,—a son, I believe; that his wife was English, married abroad; that Mrs. Lancaster comes here with the best of letters, and, for herself, is most evidently a lady."
"Good. Now I shall take a survey of the young lady herself."
When night came, and with it a crowd to Mrs. Russell's rooms, the opportunity offered for the survey, and it was made scrutinizingly. Surrey was an only son, a well-beloved one, and what concerned him was investigated with utmost care.
Scrutinizingly and satisfactorily. They were dancing, his sunny head bent till it almost touched the silky blackness of her hair. "Saxon and Norman," said somebody near who was watching them; "what a delicious contrast!"
"They make an exquisite picture," thought the mother, as she looked with delight and dread: delight at the beauty; dread that fills the soul of any mother when she feels that she no longer holds her boy,—that his life has another keeper,—and queries, "What of the keeper?"
"Well?" she said, looking up at her husband.
"Well," he answered, with a tone that meant, well. "She's thorough-bred. Democratic or not, I will always insist, blood tells. Look at her: no one needs to ask who she is. I'd take her on trust without a word."
"So, then, you are not her critic, but her admirer."
"Ah, my dear, criticism is lost in admiration, and I am glad to find it so."
"And I. Willie saw with our eyes, as a boy; it is fortunate that we can see with his eyes, as a man."
So, without any words spoken, after that night, both Mr. and Mrs. Surrey took this young girl into their hearts as they hoped soon to take her into their lives, and called her "daughter" in their thought, as a pleasant preparation for the uttered word by and by.
Thus the weeks fled. No word had passed between these two to which the world might not have listened. Whatever language their hearts and their eyes spoke had not been interpreted by their lips. He had not yet touched her hand save as it met his, gloved or formal, or as it rested on his arm; and yet, as one walking through the dusk and stillness of a summer night feels a flower or falling leaf brush his check, and starts, shivering as from the touch of a disembodied soul, so this slight outward touch thrilled his inmost being; this hand, meeting his for an instant, shook his soul.
Indefinite and undefined,—there was no thought beyond the moment; no wish to take this young girl into his arms and to call her "wife" had shaped itself in his brain. It was enough for both that they were in one another's presence, that they breathed the same air, that they could see each other as they raised their eyes, and exchange a word, a look, a smile. Whatever storm of emotion the future might hold for them was not manifest in this sunny and delightful present.
Upon one subject alone did they disagree with feeling,—in other matters their very dissimilarity proving an added charm. This was a curious question to come between lovers. All his life Surrey had been a devotee of his country and its flag. While he was a boy Kossuth had come to these shores, and he yet remembered how he had cheered himself hoarse with pride and delight, as the eloquent voice and impassioned lips of the great Magyar sounded the praise of America, as the "refuge of the oppressed and the hope of the world." He yet remembered how when the hand, every gesture of which was instinct with power, was lifted to the flag,—the flag, stainless, spotless, without blemish or flaw; the flag which was "fair as the sun, clear as the moon," and to the oppressors of the earth "terrible as an army with banners,"—he yet remembered how, as this emblem of liberty was thus apostrophized and saluted, the tears had rushed to his boyish eyes, and his voice had said, for his heart, "Thank God, I am an American!"
One day he made some such remark to her. She answered, "I, too, am an American, but I do not thank God for it."
At another time he said, as some emigrants passed them in the street, "What a sense of pride it gives one in one's country, to see her so stretch out her arms to help and embrace the outcast and suffering of the whole world!"
She smiled—bitterly, he thought; and replied, "O just and magnanimous country, to feed and clothe the stranger from without, while she outrages and destroys her children within!"
"You do not love America," he said.
"I do not love America," she responded.
"And yet it is a wonderful country."
"Ay," briefly, almost satirically, "a wonderful country, indeed!"
"Still you stay here, live here."
"Yes, it is my country. Whatever I think of it, I will not be driven away from it; it is my right to remain."
"Her right to remain?" he thought; "what does she mean by that? she speaks as though conscience were involved in the thing. No matter; let us talk of something pleasanter."
One day she gave him a clew. They were looking at the picture of a great statesman,—a man as famous for the grandeur of face and form as for the power and splendor of his intellect.
"Unequalled! unapproachable!" exclaimed Surrey, at last.
"I have seen its equal," she answered, very quietly, yet with a shiver of excitement in the tones.
"When? where? how? I will take a journey to look at him. Who is he? where did he grow?"
For response she put her hand into the pocket of her gown, and took out a velvet case. What could there be in that little blue thing to cause such emotion? As Surrey saw it in her hand, he grew hot, then cold, then fiery hot again. In an instant by this chill, this heat, this pain, his heart was laid bare to his own inspection. In an instant he knew that his arms would be empty did they hold a universe in which Francesca Ercildoune had no part, and that with her head on his heart the world might lapse from him unheeded; and, with this knowledge, she held tenderly and caressingly, as he saw, another man's picture in her hand.
His own so shook that he could scarcely take the case from her, to open it; but, opened, his eyes devoured what was under them.
A half-length,—the face and physique superb. Of what color were the hair and eyes the neutral tints of the picture gave no hint; the brow princely, breaking the perfect oval of the face; eyes piercing and full; the features rounded, yet clearly cut; the mouth with a curious combination of sadness and disdain. The face was not young, yet it was so instinct with magnificent vitality that even the picture impressed one more powerfully than most living men, and one involuntarily exclaimed on beholding it, "This man can never grow old, and death must here forego its claim!"
Looking up from it with no admiration to express for the face, he saw Francesca's smiling on it with a sort of adoration, as she, reclaiming her property, said,—
"My father's old friends have a great deal of enjoyment, and amusement too, from his beauty. One of them was the other day telling me of the excessive admiration people had always shown, and laughingly insisted that when papa was a young man, and appeared in public, in London or Paris, it was between two police officers to keep off the admiring crowd; and," laughing a gay little laugh herself, "of course I believed him! why shouldn't I?"
He was looking at the picture again. "What an air of command he has!"
"Yes. I remember hearing that when Daniel Webster was in London, and walked unattended through the streets, the coal-heavers and workmen took off their hats and stood bareheaded till he had gone by, thinking it was royalty that passed. I think they would do the same for papa."
"If he looks like a king, I know somebody who looks like a princess," thought the happy young fellow, gazing down upon the proud, dainty figure by his side; but he smiled as he said, "What a little aristocrat you are, Miss Ercildoune! what a pity you were born a Yankee!"
"I am not a Yankee, Mr. Surrey," replied the little aristocrat, "if to be a Yankee is to be a native of America. I was born on the sea."
"And your mother, I know, was English."
"Yes, she was English."
"Is it rude to ask if your father was the same?
"No!" she answered emphatically, "my papa is a Virginian,—a Virginia gentleman,"—the last word spoken with an untransferable accent,—"there are few enough of them."
"So, so!" thought Willie, "here my riddle is read. Southern—Virginia—gentleman. No wonder she has no love to spend on country or flag; no wonder we couldn't agree. And yet it can't be that,—what were the first words I ever heard from her mouth?" and, remembering that terrible denunciation of the "peculiar institution" of Virginia and of the South, he found himself puzzled the more.
Just then there came into the picture-gallery, where they were wasting a pleasant morning, a young man to whom Surrey gave the slightest of recognitions,—well-dressed, booted, and gloved, yet lacking the nameless something which marks the gentleman. His glance, as it rested on Surrey, held no love, and, indeed, was rather malignant.
"That fellow," said Surrey, indicating him, "has a queer story connected with him. He was discharged from my father's employ to give place to a man who could do his work better; and the strange part of it"—he watched her with an amused smile to see what effect the announcement would have upon her Virginia ladyship—"is that number two is a black man."
A sudden heat flushed her cheeks: "Do you tell me your father made room for a black man in his employ, and at the expense of a white one?"
"It is even so."
"Is he there now?"
Surrey's beautiful Saxon face crimsoned. "No: he is not," he said reluctantly.
"Ah! did he, this black man,—did he not do his work well?"
"Is it allowable, then, to ask why he was discarded?"
"It is allowable, surely. He was dismissed because the choice lay between him and seven hundred men."
"And you"—her face was very pale now, the flush all gone out of it—"you have nothing to do with your father's works, but you are his son,—did you do naught? protest, for instance?"
"I protested—and yielded. The contest would have been not merely with seven hundred men, but with every machinist in the city. Justice versus prejudice, and prejudice had it; as, indeed, I suppose it will for a good many generations to come: invincible it appears to be in the American mind."
"Invincible! is it so?" She paused over the words, scrutinizing him meanwhile with an unconscious intensity.
"And this black man,—what of him? He was flung out to starve and die; a proper fate, surely, for his presumption. Poor fool! how did he dare to think he could compete with his masters! You know nothing of him ?"
Surely he must be mistaken. What could this black man, or this matter, be to her? yet as he listened her voice sounded to his ear like that of one in mortal pain. What held him silent? Why did he not tell her, why did he not in some way make her comprehend, that he, delicate exclusive, and patrician, as the people of his set thought him, had gone to this man, had lifted him from his sorrow and despondency to courage and hope once more; had found him work; would see that the place he strove to fill in the world should be filled, could any help of his secure that end. Why did the modesty which was a part of him, and the high-bred reserve which shrank from letting his own mother know of the good deeds his life wrought, hold him silent now?
In that silence something fell between them. What was it? But a moment, yet in that little space it seemed to him as though continents divided them, and seas rolled between. "Francesca!" he cried, under his breath,—he had never before called her by her Christian name,—"Francesca!" and stretched out his hand towards her, as a drowning man stretches forth his hand to life.
"This room is stifling!" she said for answer; and her voice, dulled and unnatural, seemed to his strangely confused senses as though it came from a far distance,—"I am suffering: shall we go out to the air?"
"But more than loss about me clings."
"No! no, I am mad to think it! I must have been dreaming! what could there have been in that talk to have such an effect as I have conjured up? She pitied Franklin! yes, she pities every one whom she thinks suffering or wronged. Dear little tender heart! of course it was the room,—didn't she say she was ill? it must have been awful; the heat and the closeness got into my head,—that's it. Bad air is as bad as whiskey on a man's brain. What a fool I made of myself! not even answering her questions. What did she think of me? Well."
Surrey in despair pushed away the book over which he had been bending all the afternoon, seeing for every word Francesca, and on every page an image of her face. "I'll smoke myself into some sort of decent quiet, before I go up town, at least"; and taking his huge meerschaum, settling himself sedately, began his quieting operation with appalling energy. The soft rings, gray and delicate, taking curious and airy shapes, floated out and filled the room; but they were not soothing shapes, nor ministering spirits of comfort. They seemed filmy garments, and from their midst faces beautiful, yet faint and dim, looked at him, all of them like unto her face; but when he dropped his pipe and bent forward, the wreaths of smoke fell into lines that made the faces appear sad and bathed in tears, and the images faded from his sight.
As the last one, with its visionary arms outstretched towards him, receded from him, and disappeared, he thought, "That is Francesca's spirit, bidding me an eternal adieu"—and, with the foolish thought, in spite of its foolishness, he shivered and stretched out his arms in return.
"Of a verity," he then cried, "if nature failed to make me an idiot, I am doing my best to consummate that end, and become one of free choice. What folly possesses me? I will dissipate it at once,—I will see her in bodily shape,—that will put an end to such fancies,"—starting up, and beginning to pull on his gloves.
"No! no, that will not do,"—pulling them off again. "She will think I am an uneasy ghost that pursues her. I must wait till this evening, but ah, what an age till evening!"
Fortunately, all ages, even lovers' ages, have an end. The evening came; he was at the Fifth Avenue,—his card sent up,—his feet impatiently travelling to and fro upon the parlor carpet,—his heart beating with happiness and expectancy. A shadow darkened the door; he flew to meet the substance,—not a sweet face and graceful form, but a servant, big and commonplace, bringing him his own card and the announcement, "The ladies is both out, sir."
"Impossible! take it up again."
He said "impossible" because Francesca had that morning told him she would be at home in the evening.
"All right, sir; but it's no use, for there's nobody there, I know"; and he vanished for a second attempt, unsuccessful as the first. Surrey went to the office, still determinedly incredulous.
"Are Mrs. Lancaster and Miss Ercildoune not in?"
"No, sir; both out. Keys here,"—showing them. "Left for one of the five-o'clock trains; rooms not given up; said they would be back in a few days."
"From what depot did they leave?"
"Don't know, sir. They didn't go in the coach; had a carriage, or I could tell you."
"But they left a note, perhaps,—or some message?"
"Nothing at all, sir; not a word, nor a scrap. Can I serve you in any way further?"
"Thanks! not at all. Good evening."
"Good evening, sir."
That was all. What did it mean?—to vanish without a sign! an engagement for the evening, and not a line left in explanation or excuse! It was not like her. There must be something wrong, some mystery. He tormented himself with a thousand fancies and fears over what, he confessed, was probably a mere accident; wisely determined to do so no longer,—but did, spite of such excellent resolutions and intent.
This took place on the evening of Saturday, the 13th of April, 1861. The events of the next few days doubtless augmented his anxiety and unhappiness. Sunday followed,—a day filled not with a Sabbath calm, but with the stillness felt in nature before some awful convulsion; the silence preceding earthquake, volcano, or blasting storm; a quiet broken from Maine to the Pacific slope when the next day shone, and men roused themselves from the sleep of a night to the duty of a day, from the sleep of generations, fast merging into death, at the trumpet-call to arms,—a cry which sounded through every State and every household in the land, which, more powerful than the old songs of Percy and Douglas, "brought children from their play, and old men from their chimney-corners," to emulate humanity in its strength and prime, and contest with it the opportunity to fight and die in a deathless cause.
A cry which said, "There are wrongs to be redressed already long enough endured,—wrongs against the flag of the nation, against the integrity of the Union, against the life of the republic; wrongs against the cause of order, of law, of good government, against right, and justice, and liberty, against humanity and the world; not merely in the present, but in the great future, its countless ages and its generations yet unborn."
To this cry there sounded one universal response, as men dropped their work at loom, or forge, or wheel, in counting-room, bank, and merchant's store, in pulpit, office, or platform, and with one accord rushed to arms, to save these rights so frightfully and arrogantly assailed.
One voice that went to swell this chorus was Surrey's; one hand quick to grasp rifle and cartridge-box, one soul eager to fling its body into the breach at this majestic call, was his. He felt to the full all the divine frenzy and passion of those first days of the war, days unequalled in the history of nations and of the world. All the elegant dilettanteism, the delicious idleness, the luxurious ease, fell away, and were as though they had never been. All the airy dreams of a renewed chivalrous age, of courage, of heroism, of sublime daring and self-sacrifice, took substance and shape, and were for him no longer visions of the night, but realities of the day.
Still, while flags waved, drums beat, and cannon thundered; while friends said, "Go!" the world stood ready to cheer him on, and fame and honor and greater things than these beckoned him to come; while he felt the whirl and excitement of it all,—his heart cried ceaselessly, "Only let me see her—once—if but for a moment, before I go!" It was so little he asked of fate, yet too much to be granted.
In vain he went every day, and many times a day, in the brief space left him, to her hotel. In vain he once more questioned clerk and servants; in vain haunted the house of his aunt, with the dim hope that Clara might hear from her, or that in some undefined way he might learn of her whereabouts, and so accomplish his desire.
But the days passed, too slowly for the ardent young patriot, all too rapidly for the unhappy lover. Friday came. Early in the day multitudes of people began to collect in the street, growing in numbers and enthusiasm as the hours wore on, till, in the afternoon, the splendid thoroughfare of New York from Fourth Street down to the Cortlandt Ferry—a stretch of miles—was a solid mass of humanity; thousands and tens of thousands, doubled, quadrupled, and multiplied again.
Through the morning this crowd in squads and companies traversed the streets, collected on the corners, congregating chiefly about the armory of their pet regiment, the Seventh, on Lafayette Square,—one great mass gazing unweariedly at its windows and walls, then moving on to be replaced by another of the like kind, which, having gone through the same performance, gave way in turn to yet others, eager to take its place.
So the fever burned; the excitement continued and augmented till, towards three o'clock in the afternoon, the mighty throng stood still, and waited. It was no ordinary multitude; the wealth, refinement, fashion, the greatness and goodness of a vast city were there, pressed close against its coarser and darker and homelier elements. Men and women stood alike in the crowd, dainty patrician and toil-stained laborer, all thrilled by a common emotion, all vivified—if in unequal degree—by the same sublime enthusiasm. Overhead, from every window and doorway and housetop, in every space and spot that could sustain one, on ropes, on staffs, in human hands, waved, and curled, and floated, flags that were in multitude like the swells of the sea; silk, and bunting, and painted calico, from the great banner spreading its folds with an indescribable majesty, to the tiny toy shaken in a baby hand. Under all this glad and gay and splendid show, the faces seemed, perhaps by contrast, not sad, but grave; not sorrowful, but intense, and luminously solemn.
Gradually the men of the Seventh marched out of their armory. Hands had been wrung, adieus said, last fond embraces and farewells given. The regiment formed in the open square, the crowd about it so dense as to seem stifling, the windows of its building rilled with the sweetest and finest and fairest of faces,—the mothers, wives, and sweethearts of these young splendid fellows just ready to march away.
Surrey from his station gazed and gazed at the window where stood his mother, so well beloved, his relations and friends, many of them near and dear to him,—some of them with clear, bright eyes that turned from the forms of brothers in the ranks to seek his, and linger upon it wistfully and tenderly; yet looking at all these, even his mother, he looked beyond, as though in the empty space a face would appear, eyes would meet his, arms be stretched towards him, lips whisper a fond adieu, as he, breaking from the ranks, would take her to his embrace, and speak, at the same time, his love and farewell. A fruitless longing.
Four o'clock struck over the great city, and the line moved out of the square, through Fourth Street, to Broadway. Then began a march, which whoso witnessed, though but a little child, will remember to his dying day, the story of which he will repeat to his children, and his children's children, and, these dead, it will be read by eyes that shall shine centuries hence, as one of the most memorable scenes in the great struggle for freedom.
Hands were stretched forth to touch the cloth of their uniforms, and kissed when they were drawn back. Mothers held up their little children to gain inspiration for a lifetime. A roar of voices, continuous, unbroken, rent the skies; while, through the deafening cheers, men and women, with eyes blinded by tears, repeated, a million times, "God bless—God bless and keep them!" And so, down the magnificent avenue, through the countless, shouting multitude, through the whirlwind of enthusiasm and adoration, under the glorious sweep of flags, the grand regiment moved from the beginning of its march to its close,—till it was swept away towards the capital, around which were soon to roll such bloody waves of death.
Meanwhile, where was Miss Ercildoune? Surrey had thought her behavior strange the last morning they spent together. How much stranger, how unaccountable, indeed, would it have seemed to him, could he have seen her through the afternoon following!
"What is wrong with you? are you ill, Francesca?" her aunt had inquired as she came in, pulling off her hat with the air of one stifling, and throwing herself into a chair.
"Ill! O no!"—with a quick laugh,—"what could have made you think so? I am quite well, thank you; but I will go to my room for a little while and rest. I think I am tired."
"Do, dear, for I want you to take a trip up the Hudson this afternoon. I have to see some English people who are living at a little village a score of miles out of town, and then I must go on to Albany before I take you home. It will be pleasant at Tanglewood over the Sabbath,—unless you have some engagements to keep you here?"
"O Aunt Alice, how glad I am! I was going home this afternoon without you. I thought you would come when you were ready; but this will do just as well,—anything to get out of town."
"Anything to get out of town? why, Francesca, is it so hateful to you? 'Going home! and this do almost as well!'—what does the child mean? is she the least little bit mad? I'm afraid so. She evidently needs some fresh country air, and rest from excitement. Go, dear, and take your nap, and refresh yourself before five o'clock; that is the time we leave."
As the door closed between them, she shook her head dubiously. '"Going home this afternoon!' what does that signify? Has she been quarrelling with that young lover of hers, or refusing him? I should not care to ask any questions till she herself speaks; but I fear me something is wrong."
She would not have feared, but been certain, could she have looked then and there into the next room. She would have seen that the trouble was something deeper than she dreamed. Francesca was sitting, her hands supporting an aching head, her large eyes fixed mournfully and immovably upon something which she seemed to contemplate with a relentless earnestness, as though forcing herself to a distressing task. What was this something? An image, a shadow in the air, which she had not evoked from the empty atmosphere, but from the depths of her own nature and soul,—the life and fate of a young girl. Herself! what cause, then, for mournful scrutiny? She, so young, so brilliant, so beautiful, upon whom fate had so kindly smiled, admired by many, tenderly and passionately loved by at least one heart,—surely it was a delightful picture to contemplate,—this life and its future; a picture to bring smiles to the lips, rather than tears to the eyes.
Though, in fact, there were none dimming hers,—hot, dry eyes, full of fever and pain. What visions passed before them? what shadows of the life she inspected darkened them? what sunshine now and then fell upon it, reflecting itself in them, as she leaned forward to scan these bright spots, holding them in her gaze after other and gloomier ones had taken their places, as one leans forth from window or doorway to behold, long as possible, the vanishing form of some dear friend.
Looking at these, she cried out, "Fool! to have been so happy, and not to have known what the happiness meant, and that it was not for me,—never for me! to have walked to the verge of an abyss,—to have plunged in, thinking the path led to heaven. Heaven for me! ah,—I forgot,—I forgot. I let an unconscious bliss seize me, possess me, exclude memory and thought,—lived in it as though it would endure forever."
She got up and moved restlessly to and fro across the room, but presently came back to the seat she had abandoned, and to the inspection which, while it tortured her, she yet evidently compelled herself to pursue.
"Come," she then said, "let us ask ourself some questions, constitute ourself confessor and penitent, and see what the result will prove."
"Did you think fate would be more merciful to you than to others?"
"No, I thought nothing about fate."
"Did you suppose that he loved you sufficiently to destroy 'an invincible barrier?'"
"I did not think of his love. I remembered no barrier. I only knew I was in heaven, and cared for naught beyond."
"Do you see the barrier now?"
"I do—I do."
"Did he help you to behold it; to discover, or to remember it? did he, or did he not?"
"He did. Too true,—he did."
"Does he love you?"
"I—how should I know? his looks, his acts—I never thought—O Willie, Willie!"—her voice going out in a little gasping sob.
"Come,—none of that. No sentiment,—face the facts. Think over all that was said, every word. Have you done so?"
"I have,—every word."
"Ah, stop torturing me. Do not ask me any more questions. I am going away,—flying like a coward. I will not tempt further suffering. And yet—once more—only once? could that do harm? Ah, God, my God, be merciful!" she cried, clasping her hands and lifting them above her bowed head. Then remembering, in the midst of her anguish, some words she had been reading that morning, she repeated them with a bitter emphasis,—"What can wringing of the hands do, that which is ordained to alter?" As she did so she tore asunder her clasped hands, to drop them clinched by her side,—the gesture of despair substituted for that of hope.
"It is not Heaven I am to besiege!" she exclaimed. "Will I never learn that? Its justice cannot overcome the injustice of man. My God!" she cried then, with a sudden, terrible energy, "our punishment should be light, our rest sure, our paradise safe, at the end, since we have to make now such awful atonement; since men compel us to endure the pangs of purgatory, the tortures of hell, here upon earth."
After that she sat for a long while silent, evidently revolving a thousand thoughts of every shape and hue, judging from the myriads of lights and shadows that flitted over her face. At last, rousing herself, she perceived that she had no more time to spend in this sorrowful employment,—that she must prepare to go away from him, as her heart said, forever. "Forever!" it repeated. "This, then, is the close of it all,—the miserable end!" With that thought she shut her slender hand, and struck it down hard, the blood almost starting from the driven nails and bruised flesh, unheeding; though a little space thereafter she smiled, beholding it, and muttered, "So—the drop of savage blood is telling at last!"
Presently she was gone. It was a pleasant spot to which her aunt took her,—one of the pretty little villages scattered up and down the long sweep of the Hudson. Pleasant people they were too,—these English friends of Mrs. Lancaster,—who made her welcome, but did not intrude upon the solitude which they saw she desired.
Sabbath morning they all went to the little chapel, and left her, as she wished, alone. Being so alone, after hearing their adieus, she went up to her room and sat down to devote herself once again to sorrowful contemplation,—not because she would, but because she must.
Poor girl! the bright spring sunshine streamed over her where she sat;—not a cloud in the sky, not a dimming of mist or vapor on all the hills, and the broad river-sweep which, placid and beautiful, rolled along; the cattle far off on the brown fields rubbed their silky sides softly together, and gazed through the clear atmosphere with a lazy content, as though they saw the waving of green grass, and heard the rustle of wind in the thick boughs, so soon to bear their leafy burden. Stillness everywhere,—the blessed calm that even nature seems to feel on a sunny Sabbath morn. Stillness scarcely broken by the voices, mellowed and softened ere they reached her ear, chanting in the village church, to some sweet and solemn music, words spoken in infinite tenderness long ago, and which, through all the centuries, come with healing balm to many a sore and saddened heart: "Come unto me," the voices sang,—"come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
"Ah, rest," she murmured while she listened,—"rest"; and with the repetition of the word the fever died out of her eyes, leaving them filled with such a look, more pitiful than any tears, as would have made a kind heart ache even to look at them; while her figure, alert and proud no longer, bent on the window ledge in such lonely and weary fashion that a strong arm would have involuntarily stretched out to shield it from any hardness or blow that might threaten, though the owner thereof were a stranger.
There was something indescribably appealing and pathetic in her whole look and air. Outside the window stood a slender little bird which had fluttered there, spent and worn, and did not try to flit away any further. Too early had it flown from its southern abode; too early abandoned the warm airs, the flowers and leafage, of a more hospitable region, to find its way to a northern home; too early ventured into a rigorous clime; and now, shivering, faint, near to death, drooped its wings and hung its weary head, waiting for the end of its brief life to come.
Francesca, looking up with woeful eyes, beheld it, and, opening the window, softly took it in. "Poor birdie!" she whispered, striving to warm it in her gentle hand and against her delicate cheek,—"poor little wanderer!—didst thou think to find thy mate, and build thy tiny nest, and be a happy mother through the long bright summer-time? Ah, my pet, what a sad close is this to all these pleasant dreams!"
The frail little creature could not eat even the bits of crumbs which she put into its mouth, nor taste a drop of water. All her soothing presses failed to bring warmth and life to the tiny frame that presently stretched itself out, dead,—all its sweet songs sung, its brief, bright existence ended forever. "Ah, my little birdie, it is all over," whispered Francesca, as she laid it softly down, and unconsciously lifted her hand to her own head with a self-pitying gesture that was sorrowful to behold.
"Like me," she did not say; yet a penetrating eye looking at them—the slight bird lying dead, its brilliant plumage already dimmed, the young girl gazing at it—would perceive that alike these two were fitted for the warmth and sunshine, would perceive that both had been thwarted and defrauded of their fair inheritance, would perceive that one lay spent and dead in its early spring. What of the other?
"Aunt Alice," said Francesca a few days after that, "can you go to New York this afternoon or to-morrow morning?"
"Certainly, dear. I purposed returning to-day or early in the morning to see the Seventh march away. Of course you would like to be there."
"Yes." She spoke slowly, and with seeming indifference. It was because she could scarcely control her voice to speak at all. "I should like to be there."
Francesca knew, what her aunt did not, that Surrey was a member of the Seventh, and that he would march away with it to danger,—perhaps to death.
So they were there, in a window overlooking the great avenue,—Mrs. Lancaster, foreigner though she was, thrilled to the heart's core by the magnificent pageant; Francesca straining her eyes up the long street, through the vast sea of faces, to fasten them upon just one face that she knew would presently appear in the throng.
"Ah, heavens!" cried Mrs. Lancaster, "what a sight! look at those young men; they are the choice and fine of the city. See, see! there is Hunter, and Winthrop, and Pursuivant, and Mortimer, and Shaw, and Russell, and, yes—no—it is, over there—your friend, Surrey, himself. Did you know, Francesca?"
Francesca did not reply. Mrs. Lancaster turned to see her lying white and cold in her chair. Endurance had failed at last.
"The plain, unvarnished tale of my whole course of love."
"What a handsome girl that is who always waits on us!" Francesca had once said to Clara Russell, as they came out of Hyacinth's with some dainty laces in their hands.
"Very," Clara had answered.
The handsome girl was Sallie.
At another time Francesca, admiring some particular specimen of the pomps and vanities with which the store was crowded, was about carrying it away, but first experimented as to its fit.