by Elizabeth Dean Barstow Stoddard
“Oh, tell her, brief is life, but love is long.”
“What have I got that you would like to have? Your letters are tied up and directed to you. Mother will give them to you when she finds them in my desk. I could execute my last will myself, if it were not for giving her additional pain. I will leave everything for her to do except this: take these letters, and when I am dead give them to Frank. There is not a reproach in them, and they are full of wit; but he won’t laugh when he reads them again. Choose now, what will you have of mine?”
“Well,” I said, “give me the gold pen-holder that Redmond sent you after he went away.”
Laura rose up in her bed and seized me by my shoulder and shook me, crying between her teeth. “You love him! You love him!” Then she fell back on her pillow. “Oh, if he were here now! He went, I say, to marry the woman he was engaged to before he saw you. He was nearly mad, though, when he went. The night mother gave them their last party, when you were your black lace dress, and had pink roses in your hair, somehow I hardly knew you that night. I was in the little parlor, looking at the flowers on the mantelpiece, when Redmond came into the room, and, rushing up to me, bent down and whispered, ‘Did you see her go? I shall see her no more; she is walking on the beach with Maurice.’ He sighed so loud that I felt embarrassed, for I was afraid that Harry Lothrop, who was laughing and talking in a corner with two or three men, would hear him; but he was not aware that they were there. I did not know what to do, unless I ridiculed him. ‘Follow them,’ I said. ‘Step on her flounces, and Maurice will have a chance to humiliate you with some of his cutting, exquisite politeness.’ He never answered a word, and I would not look at him; but presently I understood that there were tears falling. Oh, you need not look towards me with such longing; he does not cry for you now. They seemed to bring him to his senses. He stamped his foot; but the carpet was thick; it only made a thud. Then he buttoned his coat, giving himself a violent twist as he did it, and looked at me with such a haughty composure that, if I had been you, I should have trembled in my shoes. He walked across the room towards the group of men. ‘Ah, Harry,’ he said, ‘where is Maurice?’ ‘Don’t you know?’ they all cried out; ‘he has gone as Miss Denham’s escort.’ ‘By Jove!’ said Harry Lothrop, ‘Miss Denham was as handsome as Cleopatra tonight. Little Maurice is now singing to her. Did he take his guitar under his arm? It was here, for I saw a green bag near his hat when we came in tonight.’ Just then we heard the twang of a guitar under the window, and Redmond, in spite of himself, could not help a grimace. Is it not a droll world?” said Laura, after a pause; “things come about so contrariwise.”
She laughed such a shrill laugh that I shuddered to hear it, and I fell a-crying.
“But,” she continued, “I am going, I trust, where a key will be given me for this cipher.”
Tears came into her eyes, and an expression of gentleness filled her face.
“It is strange,” she said, “when I know that I must die, that I should be so moved by earthly passions and so interested in earthly speculations. My heart supplicates God for peace and patience, and at the same moment my thoughts float away in dreams of the past. I shall soon be wiser; I am convinced of that. The doctrine of compensation extends beyond this world; if it be not so, why should I die at twenty, with all this mysterious suffering of soul? You must not wonder over me, when I am gone, and ask yourself, ‘Why did she live?’ Believe that I shall know why I lived, and let it suffice you and encourage you to go on bravely. Live and make your powers felt. Your nature is affluent, and you may yet learn how to be happy.”
She sighed softly, and turned her face to the wall, and moved her fingers as sick people do. She waited for me to cease weeping; my tears rained over my face so that I could neither see nor speak.
After I had become calmer, she moved towards me again and took my hand; her own trembled.
“It is for the last time, Margaret. My good, skillful father gives me no medicine now. My sisters have come home; they sit about the house like mourners, with idle hands, and do not speak with each other. It is terrible, but it will soon be over.”
She pulled at my hand for me to rise. I staggered up, and met her eyes. Mine were dry now.
“Do not come here again. It will be enough for my family to look at my coffin. I feel better to think you will be spared the pain.”
A sob broke in her throat.
“Margaret”—she spoke like a little child—“I am going to heaven.”
I kissed her, but I was blind and dumb. I lifted her half out of the bed. She clasped her frail arms round me, and hid her face in my bosom.
“Oh, I love you !” she said.
Her heart gave such a violent plunge that I felt it, and laid her back quickly. She waved her hand to me with a determined smile. I reached the door, still looking at her, crossed the dark threshold, and passed out of the house. The bold sunshine smote my face, and the insolent wind played about me. The whole earth was as brilliant and joyous as if it had never been furrowed by graves.
Laura lived some days after my interview with her. She sent me no message, and I did not go to see her. From the garret windows of our house, which was half a mile distant from Laura’s, I could see the windows of the room where she was lying. Three tall poplar trees intervened in the landscape. I thought they stood motionless so that they might not intercept my view while I watched the house of death. One morning I saw that the blinds had been thrown back and the windows opened. I knew then that Laura was dead.
The day after the funeral I gave Frank his letters, his miniature, and the locket which held a ring of his hair.
“Is there a fire?,” he asked, when I gave them to him; “I want to burn these things.”
I went to another room with him.
“I’ll leave everything here today, and may I never see this cursed place again! Did she die, do you know, because I held her promise that she would be my wife?”
He threw the papers into the grate, and crowded them down with his boot, and watched them till the last blackened flake disappeared. He then took from his neck a hair chain, and threw that into the fire also.
“It is all done now,” he said.
He shook my hand with a firm grasp and left me.
A month later Laura’s mother sent me a package containing two bundles of letters. It startled me to see that the direction was dated before she was taken ill: “To be given to Margaret in case of my death. June 5th, 1848.” They were my letters, and those which she had received from Harry Lothrop. On this envelope was written, “Put these into the black box he gave you.” The gold pen-holder came into my hands also. Departure was engraved on the handle, and Laura’s initials were cut in an emerald in its top. The black box was an ebony, gold-plated toy, which Harry Lothrop had given me at the same time Redmond gave Laura the pen-holder. It was when they went away, after a whole summer’s visit in our little town, the year before. I looked at the letters in the black box, and, “Whether from reason or from impulse only,” I know not, but I was prompted to write a line to Harry Lothrop.
“Do not,” I said, “write Laura any more letters. Those you have already written to her are in my keeping, for she is dead.
Was it not a pleasant summer we passed together? The second autumn is already at hand; time flies the same, whether we are dull or gay. For all this period what remains except the poor harvest of a few letters?”
I received in answer an incoherent and agitated letter. What was the matter with Laura?, he asked. He had not heard from her for months. Had any rupture occurred between her and her friend Frank? Did I suppose she was ever unhappy? He was shocked at the news, and said he must come and learn the particulars of the event. He thanked me for my note, and begged me to believe how sincere was his friendship for my poor friend.
“Redmond,” he continued, “is for the present attached to the engineer corps to which I belong, and he has offered to take charge of my business while I am a day or two absent. He is in my room at this moment, holding your note in his hand, and appears painfully disturbed.”
It was now a little past the time of year when Redmond and Harry Lothrop had left us—early autumn. After their departure Laura and I had been sentimental enough to talk over the events of their visit. Recalling these associations, we created an illusion of pleasure which of course could not last. Harry Lothrop wrote to Laura, but the correspondence declined and died. As time passed on we talked less and less of our visitors, and finally ceased to speak of them. Neither of us knew or suspected the other of any deep or lasting feeling towards the two friends. Laura knew Redmond better than I did—at least, she saw him oftener; in fact, she knew both in a different way. They had visited her alone, while I had met them almost entirely in society. I never found so much time to spare as she seemed to have; for everybody liked her, and everybody sought her. As often as we had talked over our acquaintance, she was wary of speaking of Redmond. Her last conversation with me revealed her thoughts, and awakened feelings which I thought I had buffeted down. The tone of Harry Lothrop’s note perplexed me, and I found myself drifting back into an old state of mind I had reason to dread.
As I said, the autumn had come round. Its quiet days, its sombre nights, filled my soul with melancholy. The lonesome moan of the sea and the waiting stillness of the woods were just the same a year ago; but Laura was dead, and Nature grieved me. Yet none of us are in one mood long, and at this very time there were intervals when I found something delicious in life, either in myself or the atmosphere.
“Moreover, something is or seems
That touches me with mystic gleams.”
A golden morning, a starry night, the azure round of the sky, the undulating horizon of sea, the blue haze which rose and fell over the distant hills, the freshness of youth, the power of beauty—all gave me deep voluptuous dreams.
I can afford to confess that I possessed beauty; for half my faults and miseries arose from the fact of my being beautiful. I was not vain, but as conscious of my beauty as I was of that of a flower, and sometimes it intoxicated me. For in spite of the comforting novels of the Jane Eyre school, it is hardly possible to set an undue value upon beauty; it defies ennui.
As I expected, Harry Lothrop came to see me. The sad remembrance of Laura’s death prevented any ceremony between us; we met as old acquaintances, of course, although we had never conversed together half an hour without interruption. I began with the theme of Laura’s illness and death, and the relation which she had held towards me. All at once I discovered, without evidence, that he was indifferent to what I was saying; but I talked on mechanically, and like a phantasm the truth came to my mind. The real man was there—not the one I had carelessly looked at and known through Laura.
I became silent.
He twisted his fingers in the fringe of my scarf, which had fallen off, and I watched them.
“Why,” I abruptly asked, “have I not known you before?”
He let go the fringe, and folded his hands, and in a dreamy voice replied,
“Redmond admires you.”
“What a pity!” I said. “And you—you admire me, or yourself, just now; which?”
He flushed slightly, but continued with a bland voice, which irritated and interested me:
“All that time I was so near you, and you scarcely saw me; what a chance I had to study you! Your friend was intelligent and sympathetic, so we struck a league of friendship: I could dare so much with her, because I knew that she was engaged to marry Mr. Ballard. I own that I have been troubled about her since I went away. How odd it is that I am here alone with you in this room! How many times I have wished it! I liked you best here; and while absent the remembrance of it has been inseparable from the remembrance of you—a picture within a picture. I know all that the room contains: the white vases, and the wire baskets, with pots of Egyptian lilies and damask roses, the books bound in green and gold, the engravings of nymphs and fauns, the crimson bars in the carpet, the flowers on the cushions, and, best of all, the arched window and its low seat. But I had promised myself never to see you; it was all I could do for Laura. She is dead, and I am here.”
I rose and walked to the window, and looked out on the misty sea, and felt strangely.
“Another lover,” I thought, “and Redmond’s friend, and Laura’s. But it all belongs to the comedy we play.”
He came to where I stood.
“I know you so well,” he said—“your pride, your self-control, even your foibles; but they attract one, too. You did not escape heart-whole from Redmond’s influence. He is not married yet, but he will be; he is a chivalrous fellow. It was a desperate matter between you two—a hand-to-hand struggle. It is over with you both, I believe; you are something alike. Now may I offer you my friendship? If I love you, let me say so. Do not resist me. I appeal to the spirit of coquetry which tempted you before you saw me to-night. You are dressed to please me.”
I was thinking what I should say when he skilfully turned the conversation into an ordinary channel. He shook off his dreamy manner, and talked with his old vivacity. I was charmed a little; an association added to the charm, I fancy. It was late at night when he took his leave. He had arranged it all; for a man brought his carriage to the door and drove him to the next town, where he had procured it to come over from the railway.
When I was shut in my room for the night, rage took possession of me. I tore off my dress, twisted my hair with vehemence, and hurried to bed and tried to go to sleep; but could not, of course. As when we press our eyelids together for meditation or sleep, violet rings and changing rays of light flash and fade before the darkened eyeballs, so in the dark unrest of my mind the past flashed up, and this is what I saw:
The county hall, where Laura and I first met Redmond, Harry Lothrop, and Maurice. We were struggling through the crowd of girls at the dressing-room door, to rejoin Frank, who was waiting for us. As we passed out, satisfied with the mutual inspection of our dresses of white silk, which were trimmed with bunches of rose-geranium, we saw a group of strangers close by us, buttoning their gloves, looking at their boots, and comparing looks. Laura pushed her fan against my arm; we looked at each other, and made signs behind Frank, and were caught in the act, not only by him, but by a tall gentleman in the group which she had signaled me to notice. The shadow of a smile was traveling over his face as I caught his eye, but he turned away so suddenly that I had no opportunity for embarrassment. An usher gave us a place near the band, at the head of the hall.
“Do not be reckless, Laura,” I said, “at least, till the music gives you an excuse.”
“You are obliged to me, you know,” she answered, “for directing your attention to such attractive prey. Being in bonds myself, I can only use my eyes for you; don’t be ungrateful.”
The band struck up a crashing polka, and she and Frank whirled away, with a hundred others. I found a seat and amused myself by contrasting the imperturbable countenances of the musicians with those of the dancers. The perfumes the women wore floated by me. These odors, the rhythmic motion of the dancers, and the hard, energetic music exhilarated me. The music ended, and the crowd began to buzz. The loud, inarticulate speech of a brilliant crowd is like good wine. As my acquaintances gathered about me, I began to feel its electricity, and grew blithe and vivacious. Presently I saw one of the ushers speaking to Frank, who went down the hall with him.
“Oh, my prophetic soul!” said Laura, “they are coming.”
Frank came back with the three and introduced them. Redmond asked me for the first quadrille, and Harry Lothrop engaged Laura. Frank said to me behind his handkerchief, “It’s en régle; I know where they came from; their fathers are brave, and their mothers are virtuous.”
The quadrille had not commenced, so I talked with several persons near; but I felt a constraint, for I knew I was closely observed by the stranger, who was entirely quiet. Curiosity made me impatient for the dance to begin; and when we took our places I was cool enough to examine him. Tall, slender, and swarthy, with a delicate mustache over a pair of thin scarlet lips, penetrating eyes, and a tranquil air. My antipodes in looks, for I was short and fair; my hair was straight and black like his, but my eyes were blue, and my mouth wide and full.
“What an unnaturally pleasant thing a ballroom is!” he said, “before the dust rises and the lights flare, I mean. But nobody ever leaves early; as the freshness vanishes the extravagance deepens. Did you ever notice how much faster the musicians play as it grows late? When we open the windows, the fresh breath of the night increases the delirium within. I have seen the quietest women toss their faded bouquets out of the windows without a thought of making a comparison between the flowers and themselves.”
“My poor geraniums!” I said, “what eloquence!”
He laughed, and answered,
“My friend Maurice yonder would have said it twice as well.”
We were in the promenade then, and stopped where the said Maurice was fanning himself against the wall.
“May I venture to ask you for a waltz, Miss Deuham? It is the next dance on the card,” said Maurice; “but of course you are engaged.”
I gave him my card, and he began to mark it, when Redmond took it, and placed his own initials against the dance after supper, and the last one on the list. He left me then, and I saw him a moment after talking with Laura.
We passed a gay night. When Laura and I equipped for our ten miles’ ride it was four in the morning. Redmond helped Frank to pack us in the carriage, and we rewarded him with a knot of faded leaves.
“This late event,” said Laura, with a ministerial air, after we had started, “was a providential one. You, my dear Frank, were at liberty to pursue your favorite pastime of whist, in some remote apartment, without being conscience-torn respecting me. I have danced very well without you, thanks to the strangers. And you, Margaret, have had an unusual opportunity of displaying your latent forces. Three such different men! But let us drive fast. I am in want of the cup of tea which mother will have waiting for me.”
We arrived first at my door. As I was going up the steps Laura broke the silence, for neither of us had spoken since her remarks.
“By-the-way, they are coming here to stay awhile. They are anxious for some deep-sea fishing. They’ll have it, I think.”
I heard Frank’s laugh of delight at Laura’s wit as the carriage drove off.
It was our last ball that season.
It was late in the spring; and when Redmond came with his two friends and settled at the hotel in our town it was early summer. When I saw them again they came with Laura and Frank to pay me a visit. Laura was already acquainted with them, and asked me if I did not perceive her superiority in the fact.
“Let us arrange,” said Harry Lothrop, “some systematic plan of amusement by sea and land. I have a pair of horses, Maurice owns a guitar, and Redmond’s boat will be here in a few days. Jones, our landlord, has two horses that are tolerable under the saddle. Let us ride, sail, and he serenaded. The Lake House, Jones again, is eight miles distant. This is Monday; shall we go there on horseback Wednesday?”
Laura looked mournfully at Frank, who replied to her look, “You must go; I cannot; I shall go back to business tomorrow.”
I glanced at Redmond; he was contemplating a portrait of myself at the age of fourteen.
“Shall we go?” Laura asked him.
“Nothing, thank you,” he answered.
We all laughed, and Harry Lothrop said, “Redmond, my boy, how fond you are of pictures!”
Redmond, with an unmoved face, said, “Don’t be absurd about my absent-mindedness. What were you saying!” And he turned to me.
“Do you like our plan,” I asked, “of going to the Lake House? There is a deep pond, a fine wood, a bridge; perch, pickerel, a one-story inn with a veranda; ham and eggs, stewed quince, elderberry wine, and a romantic road to ride over.”
“I like it.”
Frank opened a discussion on fishing; Laura and I withdrew, and went to the window-seat.
“I am light-hearted,” I said.
“It is my duty to be melancholy,” she replied; “but I shall not mope after Frank has gone.”
“‘After them the deluge,’” said I. “How long will they stay?”
“Till they are bored, I fancy.”
“Oh, they are going; we must leave our recess.”
Frank and she remained; the others bid us goodnight.
“I shall not come again till Christmas,” he said. “These college chaps will amuse you and make the time pass; they are young—quite suitable companions for you girls. Viva la bagatelle!”
He sighed, and, drawing Laura’s arm in his, rose to go. She groaned loudly, and he nipped her ears.
“Goodbye, Margaret; let Laura take care of you. There is a deal of wisdom in her.”
We shook hands, Laura moaning all the while, and they went home.
Frank and Laura had been engaged three years. He was about thirty, and was still too poor to marry.
Wednesday proved pleasant. We had an early dinner, and our cavalcade started from Laura’s. I rode my small bay horse Folly, a gift from my absentee brother. His coat was sleeker than satin; his ears moved perpetually, and his wide nostrils were always in a quiver. He was not entirely safe, for now and then he jumped unexpectedly; but I had ridden him a year without accident, and felt enough acquainted with him not to be afraid.
Redmond eyed him.
“You are a bold rider,” he said.
“No,” I answered, “a careful one. Look at the bit, and my whip, too. I cut his hind-legs when he jumps. Observe that I do not wear a long skirt. I can slip off the saddle, if need be, without danger.”
“That’s all very well; but his eyes are vicious; he will serve you a trick some day.”
“When he does, I’ll sell him for a carthorse.”
Laura and Redmond rode Jones’s horses. Harry Lothrop was mounted on his horse Black, a superb, thick-maned creature, with a cluster of white stars on one of his shoulders. Maurice rode a wall-eyed pony. Our friends Dickenson and Jack Parker drove two young ladies in a carriage—all the saddle-horses our town could boast of being in use. We were in high spirits, and rode fast.
I was occupied in watching Folly, who had not been out for several days. At last, tired of tugging at his mouth, I gave him rein, and he flew along. I tucked the edge of my skirt under the saddle-flap, slanted forward, and held the bridle with both hands close to his head. A long sandy reach of road lay before me. I enjoyed Folly’s fierce trotting; but, as I expected, the good horse Black was on my track, while the rest of the party were far behind. He soon overtook me. Folly snorted when he heard Black’s step. We pulled up, and the two horses began to sidle and prance, and throw up their heads so that we could not indulge in a bit of conversation.
“Brute!” said Harry Lothrop, “if I were sure of getting on again, I would dismount and thrash you awfully.”
“Remember Pickwick,” I said; “don’t do it.”
I had hardly spoken when the strap of his cap broke, and it fell from his head to the ground. I laughed, and so did he.
“I can hold your horse while you dismount for it.”
I stopped Folly, and he forced Black near enough for me to seize the rein and twist it round my hand; when I had done so Folly turned his head, and was tempted to take Black’s mane in his teeth; Black felt it, reared, and came down with his nose in my lap. I could not loose my hands, which confused me, but I saw Harry Lothrop making a great leap. Both horses were running now, and he was lying across the saddle, trying to free my hand. It was over in an instant. He got his seat, and the horses were checked.
“Good God!” he said, “your fingers are crushed.”
He pulled off my glove, and turned pale when he saw my purple hand.
“It is nothing,” I said.
But I was miserably fatigued, and prayed that the Lake House might come in sight. We were near the wood, which extended to it, and I was wondering if we should ever reach it, when he said:
“You must dismount, and rest under the first tree. We will wait there for the rest of the party to come up.”
I did so. Numerous were the inquiries when they reached us. Laura, when she heard the story, declared she now believed in Ellen Pickering. Redmond gave me a searching look, and asked me if the one-story inn had good beds.
“I can take a nap, if necessary,” I answered, “in one of Mrs. Sampson’s rush-bottomed chairs on the veranda. The croak of the frogs in the pond and the buzz of the blue-bottles shall be my lullaby.”
“No matter how, if you will rest,” he said, and assisted me to remount.
We rode quietly together the rest of the way. After arriving, we girls went by ourselves into one of Mrs. Sampson’s sloping chambers, where there was a low bedstead, and a thick feather-bed covered with a patchwork quilt of the “Job’s Trouble” pattern, a small, dim looking-glass surmounted by a bunch of “sparrow-grass,” and an unpainted floor ornamented with homemade rugs which were embroidered with pink flowerpots containing worsted rose bushes, the stalks, leaves, and flowers all in bright yellow. We hung up our riding-skirts on ancient wooden pegs, for we had worn others underneath them suitable for walking, and then tilted the wooden chairs at a comfortable angle against the wall, put our feet on the rounds, and felt at peace with all mankind.
“Alas!” I said, “it is too early for currant pies.”
“I saw,” said one of the girls, “Mrs. Sampson poking the oven, and a smell of pies was in the air.”
“Let us go into the kitchen,” exclaimed Laura.
The proposal was agreeable; so we went, and found Mrs. Sampson making plum cake.
“The pies are green gooseberry pies,” whispered Laura,“very good, too.”
“Miss Denham,” shrieked Mrs. Sampson, “you haven’t done growing yet. How’s your mother and your grandmother?—Have you had a revival in your church?—I heard of the young men down to Jones’s—our minister’s wife knows their fathers—first-rate men, she says—I thought you would be here with them. ‘Sampson,’ I said this morning, as soon as I dressed, ‘do pick some gooseberries. I’ll have before sundown twenty pies in this house.’ There they are—six gooseberry, six custard, and, though it’s late for them, six mince, and two awful great pigeon pies. It’s poor trash, I expect; I’m afraid you can’t eat it; but it is as good as anybody’s, I suppose.”
We told her we should devour it all, but must first catch some fish; and we joined the gentlemen on the veranda. A boat was ready for us. Laura, however, refused to go in it. It was too small; it was wet; she wanted to walk on the bridge; she could watch us from that; she wanted some flowers, too. Like many who are not afraid of the ocean, she held ponds and lakes in abhorrence, and fear kept her from going with us. Harry Lothrop offered to stay with her, and take lines to fish from the bridge. She assented, and, after we pushed off, they strolled away.
The lake was as smooth and white as silver beneath the afternoon sun and a windless sky; it was bordered with a mound of green bushes, beyond which stretched deep pine woods. There was no shade, and we soon grew weary. Jack Parker caught all the fish, which flopped about our feet. A little way down, where the lake narrowed, we saw Laura and Harry Lothrop hanging over the bridge.
“They must be interested in conversation,” I thought; “he has not lifted his line out of the water once.”
Redmond, too, looked over that way often, and at last said, “We will row up to the bridge, and walk back to the house, if you, Maurice, will take the boat to the little pier again.”
“Oh yes,” said Maurice.
We came to the bridge, and Laura reached out her hand to me.
“Why, dear,” she exclaimed, “you have burnt your face! Why did you,” turning to Redmond, “paddle about so long in the hot sun?”
Her words were light enough, but the tone of her voice was savage. Redmond looked surprised; he waved his hand deprecatingly, but said nothing. We went up towards the house, but Laura lingered behind, and did not come in till we were ready to go to supper.
It was past sundown when we rose from the ruins of Mrs. Sampson’s pies. We voted not to start for home till the evening was advanced, so that we might enjoy the gloom of the pine wood. We sat on the veranda and heard the sounds of approaching night. The atmosphere was like powdered gold. Swallows fluttered in the air, delaying to drop into their nests, and chirped their evening song. We heard the plunge of the little turtles in the lake, and the noisy crows as they flew home over the distant tree-tops. They grew dark, and the sky deepened slowly into a soft gray. A gentle wind arose, and waited us the sighs of the pines and their resinous odors. I was happy, but Laura was unaccountably silent.
“What is it, Laura?” I asked in a whisper.
“Nothing Margaret; only it seems to me that we mortals are always riding or fishing, eating or drinking, and that we never get to living. To tell you the truth, the pies were too sour. Come, we must go,” she said aloud.
Redmond himself brought Folly from the stable.
“We will ride home together,” he said. “My calm nag will suit yours better than Black. Why does your hand tremble?”
He saw my shaking hands as I took the rein; the fact was, my wrists were nearly broken.
“Nothing shall happen tonight, I assure you,” he continued, while he tightened Folly’s girth.
He contrived to be busy till all the party had disappeared down a turn of the road. As he was mounting his horse, Mrs. Sampson, who was on the steps, whispered to me,
“He’s a beautiful young man, now!”
He heard her; he had the ear of a wild animal; he took off his hat to Mrs. Sampson, and we rode slowly away.
As soon as we were in the wood Redmond tied the bridles of the horses together with his handkerchief. It was so dark that my sight could not separate him from his horse. They moved beside me, a vague, black shape. The horses’ feet fell without noise in the cool, moist sand. If our companions were near us we could not see them, and we did not hear them. Horses generally keep an even pace when traveling at night—subdued by the darkness, perhaps—and Folly went along without swaying an inch. I dropped the rein on his neck, and took hold of the pommel. My hand fell on Redmond’s. Before I could take it away he had clasped it, and touched it with his lips. The movement was so sudden that I half lost my balance, but the horses stepped evenly together. He threw his arm round me, and recoiled from me as if he had received a blow.
“Take up your rein,” he said, with a strange voice; “quick! We, must ride fast out of this.”
I made no reply, for I was trying to untie the handkerchief. The knot was too firm.
“No, no,” he said, when be perceived what I was doing, “let it be so.”
“Untie it, sir!”
“I will not.”
I put my face down between the horses’ necks and bit it apart, and thrust it into my bosom.
“Now,” I said, “shall we ride fast?”
He shook his rein, and we rode fiercely: past our party, who shouted at us; through the wood; over the brow of the great hill, from whose top we saw the dark, motionless sea; through the long street, and through my father’s gateway into the stable-yard, where I leaped from my horse, and, bridle in hand, said “Goodnight!” in a loud voice.
Redmond swung his hat and galloped off.
Early next morning Laura sent me a note:
“DEAR MARGARET,—I have an ague, and mean to have it till Sunday night. The pines did it. Did you bring home any needles? On Monday mother will give one of her whist-parties. I shall add a dozen or two of our set; you will come.
“P. S.—What do you think of Mr. Harry Lothrop? Good young man, eh?”
I was glad that Laura had shut herself up for a few days; I dreaded to see her just now. I suffered from an inexplicable feeling of pride and disappointment, and did not care to have her discover it. Laura, like myself, sometimes chose to protect herself against neighborly invasions. We never kept our doors locked in the country; the sending in of a card was an unknown process there. Our acquaintances walked in upon us whenever the whim took them, and it now and then happened to be an inconvenience to us who loved an occasional fit of solitude. I determined to keep indoors for a few days also. Whenever I was in an unquiet mood I took to industry; so that day I set about arranging my drawers, making over my ribbons, and turning my room upside-down. I rehung all my pictures, and moved my bottles and boxes. Then I mended my stockings, and marked my clothes, which was not a necessary piece of work, as I never left home. I next attacked the parlor—washed all the vases, changed the places of the furniture, and distressed my mother very much. When evening came I brushed my hair a good deal, and looked at my hands, and went to bed early. I could not read then, though I often took books from the shelves, and I would not think.
Sunday came round. The church-bells made me lonesome. I looked out of the window many times that day, and, fixing on the sash one of my father’s ship-glasses, swept the sea, and peered at the islands on the other side of the bay, gazing through their openings, beyond which I could see the great dim ocean. Mother came home from church, and said young Maurice was there and inquired about me. He hoped I did not take cold; his friend Redmond had been hoarse ever since our ride, and had passed most of the time in his own room, drumming on the window pane and whistling dirges. Mother dropped her acute eyes on me while she was telling me this; but I yawned all expression from my face.
As Monday night drew near my numbness of feeling began to pass off; thought came into my brain by plunges. Now I desired, now I hoped. I dressed myself in black silk, and wore a cape of black Chantilly lace. I made my hair as glossy as possible, drew it down on my face, and put round my head a band composed of minute sticks of coral. When all was done I took the candle and held it above my head and surveyed myself in the glass. I was very pale. The pupils of my eyes were dilated, as if I had received some impression that would not pass away. My lips had the redness of youth; their color was deepened by my paleness.
“How handsome I am!” I thought, as I set down the candle.
When I entered Laura’s parlor she came towards me and said,
“Artful creature! You knew well, this warm night, that every girl of us would wear a light dress; so you wore a black one. How well you understand such matters! You are very clever; your real sensibility adds effect to your cleverness. I see how it is. Come into this corner. Have you got a fan? Good gracious! Black, with gold spangles; where do you buy your things? I can tell you now,” she continued, “my conversation on the bridge the other day.”
She hesitated, and asked me if I liked her new muslin. She did look well in it; it was a white fabric, with red rose-buds scattered over it. Her delicate face was shadowed by light brown curls. She was attractive, and I told her so, and she began again:
“Harry Lothrop said, as he was impaling the half of a worm,
“‘Redmond is a handsome fellow, is he not?’”
“‘He is too awfully thin,’ I answered, ‘but his eyes are good.’
“He gave me a crafty side-look, like that of a parrot when he means to bite your finger.
“‘Your friend, too,’ he added, ‘is really one of the most beautiful girls I ever saw—a coquette with a heart.’
“‘Let down your line into the water,’ I said.
“He laughed a little laugh. By-the-bye, there is an insidious tenacity about Mr. Harry Lothrop which irritates me; but I like him, for I think he understands women. I feel at ease with him when he is not throwing out his tenacious feelers. Then he said,
“‘Redmond is engaged to his cousin. The girl’s mother had the charge of him through his boyhood. He is ardently attached to her—the mother, I mean. She is most anxious to call Redmond her son.’
“‘Didn’t you have a bite?’ I said.
“‘Well, I think the bait is off the hook,’ he answered; and then we were silent and pondered the water.
“There are some people I must speak to,” and Laura moved away without looking at me.
I opened my fan, but felt chilly. A bustle near me caused me to raise my eyes; Redmond was speaking to a lady. He was in black, too, and very pale. He turned towards me and our eyes met. His expression agitated me so that I unconsciously rose to my feet and warned him of with my fan; but he seemed rooted to the spot. Laura took care of us both; she came and stood between us. I saw her look at him so sweetly and so mournfully that he understood her in a moment. He shook his head and walked abruptly into another room. Laura went again from me without giving me a look. Maurice came up, and I made room for him beside me. We talked of the riding party, and then of our first meeting at the ball. He told me that Redmond’s boat had arrived, and what a famous beat it was, and “what jolly sprees we fellows had, cruising about with her.” I asked him about his guitar, and when we might hear him play. He grew more chatty, and began to tell me about his sister when Redmond and Harry Lothrop came over to us, which ended his chat.
The party was like all parties—dull at first, and brighter as it grew late. The old ladies played whist in one room, and the younger part of the company were in another. Champagne was not a prevalent drink in our village, but it happened that we had some that night.
“It may be a sinful beverage,” said an old lady near me, “but it is good.”
Redmond opened a bottle for me, we clinked glasses, and drank to an indefinite, silent wish.
“One more,” he asked, “and let us change glasses.”
Presently a cloud of delicate warmth spread over my brain, and gave me courage to seek and meet his glance. There must have been an expression of irresolution in my face, for he looked at me inquiringly, and then his own face grew very sad. I felt awkward from my intuition of his opinion of my mood, when he relieved me by saying something about Shelley, a copy of whose poems lay on a table near. From Shelley he went to his boat, and said he hoped to have some pleasant excursions with Laura and myself. He “would go at once and talk with Laura’s mother about them.” I watched him through the door while he spoke to her. She was in a low chair, and he leaned his face on one hand close to hers. I saw that his natural expression was one of tranquility and courage, He was not more than twenty-two, but the firmness of the lines about his mouth belied his youth.
“He has a wonderful face,” I thought, “and just as wonderful a will.”
I felt my own will rise as I looked at him—a will that should make me mistress of myself, powerful enough to contend with and resist or turn to advantage any controlling fate which might come near me.
“Do you feel like singing?” Harry Lothrop inquired. “Do you know Byron’s song, ‘One struggle more and I am free’?”
“Oh yes,” I replied; “it is set to music which suits my voice. I will sing it.”
Laura had been playing polkas with great spirit. Since the champagne the old ladies had closed their games of whist for talking, and, as it was nearly time to go, the company was gay. There was laughing and talking when I began, but silence soon after, for the wine made my voice husky and effective. I sang as if deeply moved.
“Lord,” I heard Maurice say to Laura as I rose from the piano, “what a girl! She’s really tragic.”
I caught Harry Lothrop’s eye as I passed through the door to go upstairs; it was burning; I felt as if a hot coal had dropped on me. Maurice ran into the hall and sprang upon the stair-railing to ask me if he might be my escort home. That night he serenaded me. He was a good-hearted, cheerful creature; conceited, as small men are apt to be—conceit answering for size with them— but pleasantly so, and I learned to like him as much as Redmond did.
The summer days were passing. We had all sorts of parties—parties in houses and out-of-doors; we rode and sailed and walked. Laura walked and talked much with Harry Lothrop. We did not often see each other alone, but when we met were more serious and affectionate with each other. We did not speak, except in a general way, of Redmond and Harry Lothrop. I did not avoid Redmond, nor did I seek him. We had many a serious conversation in public, as well as many a gay one; but I had never met him alone since the night we rode through the pines.
He went away for a fortnight. On the day of his return he came to see me. He looked so glad when I entered the room that I could not help feeling a wild thrill. I went up to him, but said nothing. He held out both his hands. I retreated. An angry feeling rushed into my heart.
“No,” I said. “Whose hand did you held last?”
He turned deadly pale.
“That of the woman I am going to marry.”
I smiled to hide the trembling of my lips, and offered my hand to him; but he waved it away, and fell back on his chair, hurriedly drawing his handkerchief across his face. I saw that he was very faint, and stood against the door, waiting for him to recover.
“More than I have played the woman and the fool before you.”
“I thought so. You seem experienced.”
“Forgive me,” he said, gently; “being only a man, I think you can. Good God,” he exclaimed, “what an infernal self-possession you show!”
“Redmond, is it not time to end this? The summer has been a long one, has it not? Long enough for me to have learned what it is to live. Our positions are reversed since we have become acquainted. I am for the first time forgetting self, and you for the first time remember self. Redmond, you are a noble man. You have a steadfast soul. Do not be shaken. I am not like you; I am not simple or single-hearted. But I imitate you. Now come, I beg you will go.”
“Certainly, I will. I have little to say.”
August had nearly gone when Maurice told me they were about to leave. Laura said we must prepare for retrospection and the fall sewing.
“Well,” I said, “the future looks gloomy, and I must have some new dresses.”
Maurice came to see me one morning in a state of excitement to say we were all going to Bird Island to spend the day, dine at the light-house, and sail home by moonlight. Fifteen of the party were going down by the sloop Sapphire, and Redmond had begged him to ask if Laura and I would go in his boat.
“Do go,” said Maurice; “it will be our last excursion together; next week we are off. I am broken-hearted about it. I shall never be so happy again. I have actually whimpered once or twice. You should hear Redmond whistle nowadays. Harry pulls his mustache and laughs his oily laughs, but he is sorry to go, and kicks his clothes about awfully. By-the-way, he is going down in the sloop because Miss Fairfax is going, he says—that tall young lady with crinkled hair; he hates her, and hopes to see her sick. May I come for you in the morning, by ten o’clock? Redmond will be waiting on the wharf.”
“Tell Redmond,” I answered, “that I will go; and will you ask Harry Lothrop not to engage himself for all the reels to Miss Fairfax?”
He promised to fulfill my message, and went off in high spirits. I wondered, as I saw him going down the walk, why it was that I felt so much more natural and friendly with him than with either of his friends. I often talked confidentially to him; he knew how I loved my mother, and how I admired my father, and I told him all about my brother’s business. He also knew what I liked best to eat and to wear. In return, he confided his family secrets to me. I knew his tastes and wishes. There was no common ground where I met Redmond and Harry Lothrop. There were too many topics between Redmond and myself to be avoided for us to venture upon private or familiar conversation. Harry Lothrop was an accomplished, fastidious man of the world. I dreaded boring him, and so I said little. He was several years older than Redmond, and possessed more knowledge of men, women, and books. Redmond had no acquirements, he knew enough by nature, and I never saw a person with more fascination of manner and voice.
The evening before the sailing-party I had a melancholy-fit. I was restless, and after dark I put a shawl over my head and went out to walk. I went up a lonesome road beyond our house. On one side I heard the water washing against the shore with regularity, as if it were breathing. On the other side were meadows, where there were cows crunching the grass. A mile farther was a low wood of oaks, through which ran a path. I determined to walk through that. The darkness and sharp breeze which blew against me from limitless space made me feel as if I were the only human creature the elements could find to contend with. I turned down the little path into the deeper darkness of the wood, sat down on a heap of dead leaves, and began to cry.
“Mine is a miserable pride,” was my thought—“that of arming myself with beauty and talent, and going through the world conquering! Girls are ignorant till they are disappointed. The only knowledge men proffer us is the knowledge of the heart; it becomes us to profit by it. Redmond will marry that girl. He must, and shall. I will empty the dust and ashes of my heart as soon as the fire goes down—that is, I think so; but I know that I do not know myself. I have two natures—one that acts, and one that is acted upon; and I cannot always separate the one from the other.”
Something darkened the opening into the path. Two persons passed in slowly. I perceived the odor of violets, and felt that one of them must be Laura. Waiting till they passed beyond me, I rose and went home.
The next morning was cloudy, and the sea was rough with a high wind; but we were old sailors, and decided to go on our excursion. The sloop and Redmond’s boat left the wharf at the same time. We expected to be several hours beating down to Bird Island, for the wind was ahead. Laura and I, muffled in cloaks, were placed on the thwarts and neglected; for Redmond and Maurice were busy with the boat. Laura was silent, and looked ill. Redmond sat at the helm, and kept the boat up to the wind, which drove the hissing spray over us. The sloop hugged the shore, and did not feel the blast as we did. I slid along my seat to be near Redmond. He saw me coming, and put out his hand and drew me towards him, looking so kindly at me that I was melted. Trying to get at my handkerchief, which was in my dress-pocket, my cloak flew open, the wind caught it, and, as I rose to draw it closer, I nearly fell overboard. Redmond gave a spring to catch me, and the boat lost her headway. The sail flapped with a loud bang. Maurice swore, and we chopped about in the short sea.
“It is your destiny to have a scene wherever you are,” said Laura. “If I did not feel desperate I should be frightened. But these green crawling waves are so opaque, if we fall in we shall not see ourselves drown.”
“Courage! The boat is under way,” Maurice cried out; “we are nearly there.”
And rounding a little point we saw the lighthouse at last. The sloop anchored a quarter of a mile from the shore, the water being shoal, and Redmond took off her party by installments.
“What the deuce was the matter with you at one time?,” asked Jack Parker. “We saw you were having a sort of convulsion. Our cap’n said you were cold chaps to be trifling with such a top-heavy boat.”
“Miss Denham,” said Redmond, “thought she could steer the boat as well as I could, and so the boat lost headway.”
Harry Lothrop gave Redmond one of his soft smiles, and a vexed look passed over Redmond’s face when he saw it.
We had to scramble over a low range of rocks to get to the shore. Redmond anchored his boat by one of them. Bird Island was a famous place for parties. It was a mile in extent. Not a creature was on it except the light-house keeper, his wife, and daughter. The gulls made their nests in its rocky borders; their shrill cries, the incessant dashing of the waves on the ledges, and the creaking of the lantern in the stone tower were all the sounds the family heard, except when they were invaded by some noisy party like ours. They were glad to see us. The light-house keeper went into the world only when it was necessary to buy stores, or when his wife and daughter wanted to pay a visit to the mainland.
The house was of stone, one story high, with thick walls. The small, deep-set windows and the low ceilings gave the rooms the air of a prison; but there was also an air of security about them; for in looking from the narrow windows one felt that the house was a steadfast ship in the circle of the turbulent sea, whose waves from every point seemed advancing towards it. A pale, coarse grass grew in the sand of the island. It was too feeble to resist the acrid breath of the ocean, so it shuddered perpetually, and bent landward, as if invoking the protection of its step-mother, the solid earth. “It is perfect,” said Redmond to me; “I have been looking for this spot all my life; I am ready to swear that I will never leave it.”
We were sitting in a window, facing each other. He looked out towards the west, and presently was lost in thought. He folded his arms tightly across his breast, and his eyes were a hundred miles away. The sound of a fiddle in the long alley which led from the house to the tower broke his reverie.
“We shall be uproarious before we leave,” I said; “we always are when we come here.”
The fun had already set in. Some of the girls had pinned up their dresses and borrowed aprons from the light-house keeper’s wife, and with scorched faces were helping her to make chowder and fry fish. Others were arranging the table, assisted by the young men, who put the dishes in the wrong places. Others were singing in the best room.
One or two had brought novels along, and were reading them in corners. It was all merry and pleasant, but I felt quiet. Redmond entered into the spirit of the scene. I had never seen him so gay. He chatted with all the girls, interfering or helping, as the case might be. Maurice brought his guitar, and had a group about him at the foot of the tower stairs. He sang loud, but his voice seemed to fluctuate—now it rang through the tower, now it was half overpowered by the roar of the sea. His poetical temperament led him to choose songs in harmony with the place, not to suit the company—melancholy words set to wild, fitful chords, which roe and died away according to the skill of the player. I had gone near him, for his singing had attracted me.
“You are inspired,” I said.
“You never sang so before.”
“I feel old today,” he answered, and he swept his hands across all the strings; “my ditties are done.”
After dinner Laura asked me to go out with her. We slipped away unseen, and went to the beach, and seated ourselves on a great rock whose outer side was lapped by the water. The sun had broken through the clouds, but shone luridly, giving the sea a leaden tint. The wind was going down. We had not been there long when Redmond joined us. He asked us to go round the island in his boat. Laura declined, and said she would sit on the rock while we went, if I chose to go. I did choose to go, and he brought the boat to the rock. He hoisted the sail half up the mast, and we sailed close to the shore. It rose gradually along the east side of the island, and terminated in a bold ledge which curved into the sea. We ran inside the curve, where the water was nearly smooth. Redmond lowered the sail, and the boat drifted towards the ledge slowly. A tongue of land, covered with pale sedge, was on the left side. Above the ledge, at the right, we could see the tower of the lighthouse. Redmond tied down the helm, and, throwing himself beside me, leaned his head on his hand, and looked at me a long time without speaking. I listened to the water, which splashed faintly against the hows. He covered his face with his hands. I looked out seaward over the tongue of land; my heart quaked, like the grass which grew upon it. At last he rose, and I saw that he was crying—the tears rained fast.
“My soul is dying,” he said, in a stifled voice; “I am not more than mortal—I cannot endure it.”
I pointed towards the open sea, which loomed so vague in the distance.
“The future is like that, is it not? Courage! We must drift through it; we shall find something.”
He stamped his foot on the deck.
“Women always talk so; but men are different. If there is a veil before us we must tear it away, not sit muffled in its folds, and speculate on what is behind it. Rise.”
I obeyed him. He held me firmly. We were face to face.
“Look at me.”
I did. His eyes were blazing.
“Do you love me?”
He placed me on the bench, hoisted the sail, untied the helm, and we were soon plowing round to the spot where we had left Laura; but she was gone. On the rock where she was perched a solitary gull, which flew away with a scream as we approached.
That day was the last that I saw Redmond alone. He was at the party at Laura’s house which took place the night before they left. We did not bid each other adieu.
After the three friends had gone, they sent us gifts of remembrance. Redmond’s keepsake was a white fan with forget-me-nots painted on it. To Laura he sent the pen-holder which was now mine.
We missed them, and should have felt their loss had no deep feeling been involved; for they gave an impetus to our dull country life, and the whole summer had been one of excitement and pleasure. We settled by degrees into our old habits. At Christmas Frank came. He looked worried and older. He had heard something of Laura’s intimacy with Harry Lothrop, and was troubled about it, I know; but I believe Laura was silent on the matter. She was quiet and affectionate towards him during his visit, and he went back consoled.
The winter passed. Spring came and went, and we were deep into the summer when Laura was taken ill. She had had a little cough, which no one except her mother noticed. Her spirits fell, and she failed fast. When I saw her last she had been ill some weeks, and had never felt strong enough to talk as much as she did in that interview. She nerved herself to make the effort, and as she bade me farewell, bade farewell to life also. And now it was all over with her!
I fell asleep at length, and woke late. It seemed as if a year had dropped out of the procession of Time. My heart was still beating with the emotion which stirred it when Redmond and I were together last. Recollection had stung me to the quick. A terrible longing urged me to go and find him. The feeling I had when we were in the boat, face to face, thrilled my fibers again. I saw his gleaming eyes; I could have rushed through the air to meet him. But, alas! exaltation of feeling lasts only a moment; it drops us where it finds us. If it were not so, how easy to he a hero! The dull reaction of the present, like a slow avalanche, crushed and ground me into nothingness.
“Something must happen at last,” I thought, “to amuse me, and make time endurable.”
What can a woman do when she knows that an epoch of feeling is rounded off, finished, dead? Go back to her story-books, her dress-making, her worsted-work? Shall she attempt to rise to mediocrity on the piano or in drawing, distribute tracts, become secretary of a Dorcas society? Or shall she turn her mind to the matter of cultivating another lover at once? Few of us women have courage enough to shoulder out the corpses of what men leave in our hearts. We keep them there, and conceal the ruins in which they lie. We grow cunning and artful in our tricks the longer we practice them. But how we palpitate and shrink and shudder when we are alone in the dark!
After Redmond departed I had locked up my feelings and thrown the key away. The death of Laura, and the awakening of my recollections, caused by the appearance of Harry Lothrop, wrenched the door open. Hitherto I had acted with the bravery of a girl ; I must now behave with the resolution of a woman. I looked into my heart closely. No skeleton was there, but the image of a living man—Redmond.
“I love him,” I confessed. “To be his wife and the mother of his children is the only lot I ever care to choose. He is noble, handsome, and loyal. But I cannot belong to him, nor can he ever be mine.
“‘Of love that never found his earthly close What sequel?’”
What did he do with the remembrance of me? He scattered it, perhaps, with the ashes of the first cigar he smoked after he went from me—made a mound of it, maybe, in honor of Duty. I am as ignorant of him as if he no longer existed; so this image must be torn away. I will not burn the lamp of life before it, but will build up the niche where it stands into a solid wall.”
The ideal happiness of love is so sweet and powerful that, for a while, adverse influences only exalt the imagination. When Laura told me of Redmond’s engagement, it did but change my dream of what might be into what might have been. It was a mirage which continued while he was present and faded with his departure. Then my heart was locked in the depths of will till circumstances brought it a power of revenge. I think now, if we had spoken freely and truly to each other, I should have suffered less when I saw his friend. We feel better when the funeral of our dearest friend is over and we have returned to the house. There is to be no more preparation, no waiting; the windows may be opened, and the doors set wide; the very dreariness and desolation force our attention towards the living.
“Something will come,” I thought; and I determined not to have any more reveries. “Mr. Harry Lothrop is a pleasant riddle; I shall see him soon, or he will write.”
It occurred to me then that I had some letters of his already in my possession—those he had written to Laura. I found the ebony box, and taking from it the sealed package, unfolded the letters one by one, reading them according to their dates. There was a note among them for me from Laura.
“When you read these letters, Margaret,” it said, “you will see that I must have studied the writer of them in vain. You know now that he made me unhappy; not that I was in love with him much, but he stirred depths of feeling which I had no knowledge of, and which between Frank, my betrothed husband, and myself had no existence. But ‘le roi s’amuse.’ Perhaps a strong passion will master this man; but I shall never know. Will you?”
I laid the letters back in their place, and felt no very strong desire to learn anything more of the writer. I did not know then how little trouble it would be—my share of making the acquaintance.
It was not many weeks before Mr. Lothrop came again, and rather ostentatiously, so that everybody knew of his visit to me. But he saw none of the friends he had made during his stay the year before. I happened to see him coming, and went to the door to meet him. Almost his first words were:
“Maurice is dead. He went to Florida, took the fever, which killed him, of course. He died only a week after—after Laura. Poor fellow! Did he interest you much? I believe he was in love with you, too; but musical people are never desperate, except when they play a false note.”
“Yes,” I answered, “I was fond of him. His conceit did not trouble me, and he never fatigued me; he had nothing to conceal. He was a commonplace man; one liked him when with him, and when away one had no thought about him.”
“I alone am left you,” said my visitor, putting his hat on a chair, and slowly pulling off his gloves, finger by finger.
He had slender, white hands, like a woman’s, and they were always in motion. After he had thrown his gloves into his hat, he put his finger against his cheek, leaned his elbow on the arm of his chair, crossed his legs, and looked at me with a cunning self-possession. I glanced at his feet; they were small and well-booted. I looked into his face; it was not a handsome one, but he had magnetic eyes of a lightish blue, and a clever, loose month. It is impossible to describe him—just as impossible as it is for a man who was born a boor to attain the bearing of a gentleman; any attempt at it would prove a bungling matter when compared with the original. He felt my scrutiny, and knew, too, that I had never looked at him till then.
“Do you sing nowadays?” he asked, tapping with his fingers the keys of the piano behind him.
“They suit you admirably; but I perceive you attend to your dress still. How effective those velvet bands are! You look older than you did two years ago.”
“Two years are enough to age a woman.”
“Yes, if she is miserable. Can you be unhappy?” he asked, rising, and taking a seat beside me.
There was a tone of sympathy in his voice which made me shudder, I knew not why. It was neither aversion nor liking; but I dreaded to be thrown into any tumult of feeling. I realized afterwards more fully that it is next to impossible for a passionate woman to receive the sincere addresses of a manly man without feeling some fluctuation of soul. Ignorant spectators call her a coquette for this. Happily, there are teachers among our own sex, women of cold temperaments, able to vindicate themselves from the imputation. They spare themselves great waste of heart and some generous emotion—also remorse and self-accusations regarding the want of propriety and the other ingredients which go to make up a white-muslin heroine.
Harry Lothrop saw that my cheek was burning, and made a movement towards me. I tossed my head back, and moved down the sofa; he did not follow me, but smiled and mused in his old way.
And so it went on—not once, but many times. He wrote me quiet, persuasive, eloquent letters. By degrees I learned his own history and that of his family, his prospects and his intentions. He was rich. I knew well what position I should have if I were his wife. My beauty would be splendidly set. I was well enough off, but not rich enough to harmonize all things according to my taste. I was proud, and he was refined; if we were married, what better promise of delicacy could be given than that of pride in a woman, refinement in a man? He brought me flowers or books when he came. The flowers were not delicate and in-odorous, but magnificent and deep-scented; and the material of the books was stalwart and vigorous. I read his favorite authors with him. He was the first person who ever made any appeal to my intellect. In short, he was educating me for a purpose.
Once he offered me a diamond cross. I refused it, and he never asked me to accept any gift again. His visits were not frequent, and they were short. However great the distance he accomplished to reach me, he stayed only an evening, and then returned. He came and went at night. In time I grew to look upon our connection as an established thing. He made me understand that he loved me, and that he only waited for me to return it; but he did not say so.
I lived an idle life, inhaling the perfume of the flowers he gave me, devouring old literature, the taste for which he had created, and reading and answering his letters. To be sure, other duties were fulfilled. I was an affectionate child to my parents, and a proper acquaintance for my friends. I never lost any sleep now, nor was I troubled with dreams. I lived in the outward; all my restless activity, that constant questioning of the heavens and the earth, had ceased entirely. Five years had passed since I first saw Redmond. I was now twenty-four. The Fates grew tired of the monotony of my life, I suppose, for about this time it changed.
My oldest brother, a bachelor, lived in New York. He asked me to spend the winter with him; he lived in a quiet hotel, had a suite of rooms, and could make me comfortable, he said. He had just asked somebody to marry him, and that somebody wished to make my acquaintance. I was glad to go. My heart gave a bound at the prospect of change; I was still young enough to dream of the impossible when any chance offered itself to my imagination; so I accepted my brother’s invitation with some elation.
I had been in New York a month. One day I was out with my future sister on a shopping raid; with our hands full of little paper parcels, we stopped to look into Goupil’s window. There was always a rim of crowd there, so I paid no attention to the jostles we received. We were looking at an engraving of Ary Scheffer’s “Francoise de Rimini.” “Not the worst hell,” muttered a voice behind me which I knew. I started, and pulled Leonora’s arm; she turned round, and the fringe of her coat-sleeve caught a button on the overcoat of one of the gentlemen standing together. It was Redmond; the other was his “ancient,” Harry Lothrop. Leonora was arrested; I stood still, of course. Redmond had not seen my face, for I turned it from him; and his head was bent down to the task of disengaging his button.
“‘Each only as God wills
Can work; God’s puppets, best and worst,
Are we; there is no last nor first,’”
I thought, and turned my head. He instinctively took off his hat, and then planted it back on his head firmly, and looked over to Harry Lothrop, to whom I gave my hand. He knew me before I saw him, I am convinced; but his dramatic sense kept him silent—perhaps a deeper feeling. There was an expression of pain in his face which impelled me to take his arm.
“Let us move on, Leonora,” I said; “these are some summer friends of mine,” and I introduced them to her.
My chief feeling was embarrassment, which was shared by all the party; for Leonora felt that there was something unusual in the meeting. The door of the hotel seemed to come round at last, and as we were going in, Harry Lothrop asked me if he might see me the next morning.
“Do come,” I answered aloud.
We all bowed, and they disappeared.
“What an elegant Indian your tall friend is!” said Leonora.
“Yes; of the Comanche tribe.”
“But he would look better hanging from his horse’s mane than he does in a long coat.”
“He is spoiled by civilization and white parents. But, Leonora, stay and dine with me in my own room. John will not come home till it is time for the opera. You know we are going. You must make me splendid; you can torture me into style, I know.”
She consented, provided I would send a note to her mother, explaining that it was my invitation, and not her old John’s, as she irreverently called him. I did so, and she was delighted to stay.
“This is fast,” she said; “can’t we have champagne and black coffee?”
She fell to rummaging John’s closets, and brought out a dusty, Chinese-looking affair, which she put on for a dressing-gown. She found some Chinese straw shoes, and tucked her little feet into them, and then braided her hair in a long tail, and declared she was ready for dinner. Her gaiety was refreshing, and I did not wonder at John’s admiration. My spirits rose, too, and I astonished Leonora at the table with my chat; she had never seen me except when quiet. I fell into one of those unselfish, unasking moods which are the glory of youth: I felt that the pure heaven of love was in the depths of my being; my soul shone like a star in its atmosphere; my heart throbbed, and I cried softly to it, “Live! live! he is here!” I still chatted with Leonora and made her laugh, and the child for the first time thoroughly liked me. We were finishing our dessert when we heard John’s knock. We allowed him to come in for a moment, and gave him some almonds, which he leisurely cracked and ate.
“Somehow, Margaret,” he said, “you remind me of those women who enjoy the Indian festival of the funeral pile. I have seen the thing done; you have something of the sort in your mind; be sure to immolate yourself handsomely. Women are the dense.”
“Finish your almonds, John,” I said, “and go away; we must dress.”
He put his hand on my arm, and whispered, “Smother that light in your eyes, my girl; it is dangerous. And you have lived under your mother’s eye all your life! You see what I have done”—indicating Leonora with his eyebrows; “taken a baby on my hands.”
“John, John !” I inwardly ejaculated, “you are an idiot.”
“She shall never suffer what you suffer; she shall have the benefit of the experience which other women have given me.”
“Very likely,” I answered; “I know we often serve you as pioneers merely.”
He gave a sad nod, and I closed the door upon him.
“Put these pins into my hair, Leonora, and tell me, how do you like my new dress?”
“Paris!” she cried.
It was a dove-colored silk with a black velvet stripe through it. I showed her a shawl which John had given me—a pale yellow gauzy fabric with a gold-thread border—and told her to make me up. She produced quite a marvelous effect; for this baby understood the art of dress to perfection. She made my hair into a loose mass, rolling it away from my face; yet it was firmly fastened. Then she shook out the shawl and wrapped me in it, so that my head seemed to be emerging from a pale-tinted cloud. John said I looked outlandish, but Leonora thought otherwise. She begged him for some Indian perfume, and he found an aromatic powder, which he sprinkled inside my gloves and over my shawl.
We found the opera-house crowded. Our seats were near the stage. John sat behind us, so that he might slip out into the lobby occasionally; for the opera was a bore to him. The second act was over; John had left his seat; I was opening and shutting my fan mechanically, half lost in thought, when Leonora, who had been looking at the house with her lorgnette, turned and said:
“Is not that your friend of this morning on the other side, in the second row, leaning against the third pillar? There is a queenish-looking old lady with him. He hasn’t spoken to her for a long time, and she continually looks up at him.”
I took her glass and discovered Redmond. He looked back at me through another; I made a slight motion with my handkerchief; he dropped his glass into the lap of the lady next him and darted out, and in a moment he was behind me in John’s seat.
“Who is with you?” he asked.
“Brother,” I answered.
“You intoxicate me with some strange perfume; don’t fan it this way.”
I quietly passed the fan to Leonora, who now looked back and spoke to him. He talked with her a moment, and then she discreetly resumed her lorgnette.
“What happened for two years after I left B.? The last year I know something of.”
“Breakfast, dinner, and tea, the ebb and flow of the tide, and the days of the week.”
“Nothing more?” And his voice came nearer.
“A few trifles.”
“They are under lock and key, I suppose?”
“We do not carry relics about with us.”
“There is the conductor; I must go. Turn your face towards me more.”
I obeyed him, and our eyes met. His searching gaze made me shiver.
“I have been married,” he said, and his eyes were unflinching, “and my wife is dead.”
All the lights went down, I thought; I struck out my arm to find Leonora, who caught it and pressed it down.
“I must get out,” I said; and I walked up the alley to the door without stumbling.
I knew that I was fainting or dying; as I had never fainted, I did not know which. Redmond carried me through the cloak-room and put me on a sofa.
“I never can speak to him again,” I thought, and then I lost sight of them all.
A terribly sharp pain through my heart roused me, and I was in a violent chill. They had thrown water over my face; my hair was matted, and the water was dripping from it on my naked shoulders. The gloves had been ripped from my hands, and Leonora was wringing my handkerchief.
“The heat made you faint, dear,” she said.
John was walking up and down the room with a phlegmatic countenance, but he was fuming.
“My new dress is ruined, John,” I said.
“Hang the dress! How do you feel now?”
“It is drowned; and I feel better. Shall we go home?”
He went out to order the carriage, and Leonora whispered to me that she had forgotten Redmond’s name.
“No matter,” I answered. I could not have spoken it then.
When John came, Leonora, beckoned to Redmond to introduce himself. John shook hands with him, gave him an intent look, and told us the carriage was ready. Redmond followed us, and took leave of us at the carriage door.
Leonora begged me to stay at her house; I refused, for I wished to be alone. John deposited her with her mother, and we drove home. He gave me one of his infallible medicines, and told me not to get up in the morning. But when morning came I remembered Harry Lothrop was coming, and made myself ready for him. As human nature is not quite perfect, I felt unhappy about him, and rather fond of him, and thought he possessed some admirable qualities. I never could read the old poets any more without a pang, unless he were with me, directing my eye along their pages with his long white finger! I never should smell tuberoses again without feeling faint, unless they were his gift!
By the time he came I was in a state of romantic regret, and in that state many a woman has answered, “Yes!” He asked me abruptly if I thought it would be folly in him to ask me to marry him. The question turned the tide.
“No,” I answered, “not folly, for I have thought many times in the last two years that I should marry you if you said I must. But now I believe that it is not best. You have pursued me patiently; your self-love made the conquest of me a necessary pleasure. That was well enough for me, for you made me feel all the while that, if I loved you, you were worth possessing. And you are. I liked you. But my feeling for you did not prevent my fainting away at the opera-house last night when Redmond told me that his wife was dead.”
“So,” he said, “the long-smothered fire has broken out again! Chance does not befriend me. He saw you last night, and yielded. He said yesterday he should not tell you. He asked me about you after we left you, and wished to know if I had seen you much for the last year. I offered him your last letter to read—am I not generous?—but he refused it.’
“‘When I see her,’ he asked, ‘am I at liberty to say what I choose?’”
“On that I could have said, ‘No.’ Redmond and I had not seen each other since the period of my first visit to you. He has been nursing his wife in the meantime, taking journeys with her, and trying all sorts of cures; and now he seems tied to his aunt and mother-in-law. He was merely passing through the city with her, and this morning they have gone again. Well,” after a pause, “there is no need of words between us. I have in my possession a part of you. Beautiful women are like flowers which open their leaves wide enough for their perfume to attract wandering bees; the perfume is wasted, though the honey may be hid.”
“Alas, what a lesson this man is giving me!” I thought.
“Farewell, then,” he said. He hit his lips, and his clinched hands trembled; but he mastered his emotion. “You must think of me.”
“And see you, too,” I answered. “Everything comes round again, if we live long enough. Dramatic unities are never preserved in life; if they were, how poetical would all these things be! But Time whirls us round, showing us our many-sided feelings as carelessly as a child rattles the bits of glass in his kaleidoscope.”
“So be it!” he replied. “Adieu!”
That afternoon I stayed at home, and put John’s room in order, and cleaned the dust from his Indian idols, and was extremely busy till he came in. Then I kissed his whiskers, and told him all my sins, and cried once or twice during my confession. He petted me a good deal, and made me eat twice as much dinner as I wanted; he said it was good for me, and I obeyed him, for I felt uncommonly meek that day.
Soon after, Redmond sent me a long letter. He said he had been, from a boy, under an obligation to his aunt, the mother of his wife. It was a common story, and he would not trouble me with it. He was married soon after Harry Lothrop’s ﬁrst visit to me, at the time they had received the news of Laura’s death. How much he had thought of Laura afterwards, while he was watching the fading away of his pale blossom! His aunt had been ill since the death of her daughter, restless, and discontented with every change. He hoped she was now settled among some old friends with whom she might find consolation. In conclusion, he wrote: “My aunt noticed our hasty exit from the opera-house that night, when I was brute enough to nearly kill you. I told her that I loved you. She now feels, after a struggle, that she must let me go. ‘Old women have no rights,’ she said to me yesterday. Margaret, may I come, and never leave you again?”
My answer may be guessed, for one day he arrived. It was the dusk of a cheery winter day, the time when home wears so bright a look to those who seek it. It was an hour before dinner, and I was waiting for John to come in. The amber evening sky gleamed before the windows, and the fire made a red core of light in the room. John’s sandal-wood boxes gave out strange odors in the heat, and the pattern of the Persian rug was just visible. A servant came to the door with a card. I held it to the grate, and the fire lit up his name.
“Show him upstairs,” I said.
I stood in the doorway, and heard his step on every stair. When he came I took him by the hand, and drew him into the room. He was speechless.
“Oh, Redmond, I love you! How long you were away!”
He knelt by me, and put my arms around his neck, and we kissed each other with the first, best kiss of passion.
John came in, and I reached out my hand to him and said, “This is my husband.”
“That’s comfortable,” he answered. “Won’t you stay to dinner?”
“Oh yes,” replied Redmond; “this is my hotel.”
“I see,” said John.
But after dinner they had a long talk together. John sent me to my room, and I was glad to go. I walked up and down, crying, I must say, most of the time, asking forgiveness of myself for my faults, and remembering Laura and Maurice—and then thinking Redmond was mine with a contraction of the heart which threatened to stifle me.
John took us up to Leonora’s that evening; he said he wanted to see if Puss would be tantalized with the sight of such a beautiful romantic couple just from fairyland, who were now prepared “to live in peace.”
We were married the next day in a church in a by-street. John was the only witness, and flourished a large silk handkerchief so that it had the effect of a triumphal banner. Redmond put the ring on the wrong finger—a mistake which the minister kindly rectified. All I had new for the occasion was a pair of gloves.
One morning after my marriage, when Redmond and John were smoking together, I was turning over some boxes, for I was packing to go home on a visit to our mother. I called Redmond to leave his pipe and come to me.
“You have not seen any of my property. Look, here it is:
“One bitten handkerchief.
“A fan never used.
“A gold pen-holder.
“A draggled shawl.”
“Margaret,” he said taking my chin in his hand and bringing his eyes close to mine, “I am wild with happiness.”
“Your pipe has gone out,” we heard John say.