A Plain Story of a Plain Woman.
[Entered, according to the Act of Congress, in the year 1871, by Mrs. A. J. Duniway, in the Office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington City.]
A few evenings after the scene just described, I again strolled out into the grove of maples, whither I was wont to repair when holding silent and sweet, yet sad and solemn, communings with my inmost heart. Suddenly the sounds of whispered conversation disturbed my reverie. Instantly looking up, I again perceived Dr. Armstrong and his companion, evidently engaged in earnest discussion. Determined this time, if possible, to secure an explanation of what I saw, I stepped hastily forward to where they were sitting.
The Doctor's companion arose and hurried away, but I felt, from the magnetic condition of the surrounding atmosphere, that he could be no other person than Dr. Gordon, upon whose account I was fast losing the strongest attribute of my nature, my innate self-respect.
"Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall!"
What good monitor whispered these important words of warning? Certain it is I seemed to hear them, and they nerved my soul to strength.
"Judith Reid!" said Dr. Armstrong, timidly, "this is no fit place for you! Why are you out here alone at this hour? Whom did you expect to meet?"
"I am here alone because I have a right to come and choose to exercise the right. I expected to meet none but the Creator who stretcheth out the heavens as a span. I came here to commune with Him."
The Doctor's companion wrapped his heavy cloak about his face and disappeared in the black shadows of the moon-lit grove.
"By what right do you transgress upon my grounds?" I continued. "Your companion flees at my approach and you proceed to arraign me as a criminal, guilty of some flagrant misdemeanor. Dr. Armstrong! I did not look for this from you! What does all this mean?"
"Judith Reid! I command you to listen to me! Have I not sought your highest good? Did I not follow you to your northwestern home and snatch you from the degradation of drudgery and the very jaws of death?"
"There was no degradation in the fact that I earned an honest livelihood; and I would gladly welcome the ferocious jaws of death to-night! Dr. Armstrong, what motives prompted you to seek me out? By whose connivance was my early womanhood so badly warped? Why was I made the victim of such awful circumstances?"
"God knows I never meant to harm you, Judith. I have taken the deepest interest in all that pertains to you ever since I found you, many years ago, a fiery prey to your own morbid fancies and a victim of unappreciation and poverty. Do you remember that I then saved your life?"
"Would to God that you had let me die!" I wailed, as I fell to my knees upon the dew-bejeweled grass and poured out my spirit in a prayer of silent agony.
The Doctor was moving away as if glad to escape from my presence.
"Stop! I implore you!" I entreated.
"This is no time for further discussion, my poor, frightened child. To-morrow I will visit you and see what can be done. My daughter says you contemplate an early return to the Pacific coast."
There was a sort of relief in his voice as he uttered these last words, which caused me to feel that he would be very glad to get rid of me. A suspicion had for some time been vaguely gathering form and substance in my brain—a sort of intuition that led one to feel that this man knew more about my early misfortune than he cared to unveil.
"Never will I leave this city," said I firmly, "until the mystery and misery of my past life have been explained. I have wandered in darkness all the days of my life, and now, by the Eternal, I swear, and these stars overhead shall bear me witness, I will ferret out the labyrinth of past mysterious circumstances and explore the darkest depths of fate."
"Judith, you are in a frenzy. You know not what you say."
"Indeed I am not mad," I said. "The words of truth and soberness are on my tongue. I feel and how that you are in some unaccountable manner connected with the great mystery that shrouds my life, and I will know the whole if the investigation brings you to the gallows and me to perdition!"
The strong man quailed and hesitated.
"Speak! sir, speak!" I shouted. "Tell me how and why you are connected with my fate, and how and why you came to be my good and evil genius."
"You shall know all in time, my poor, bruised lambkin. If I have been, as you assert, your evil genius, I have not so intended. God and the angels bear me witness that I have never meant, by word or deed, to bring you ought but happiness. And if there is any work that I can accomplish by which you may obtain that peace of mind to which I for many years have been a stranger, personal humiliation shall be nothing to me. I will do my duty though my own roof tree full and though the blight shall crush me. Judith, God only knows how unhappy I am! I have carried a secret sorrow all the days of my manhood. I am about to tell you that which I have struggled all my life to keep from the world. John Smith, the man whose name you bear, and the man with whom you saw me in the grove have had me in their power many, many years. Poor John has gone the way of all the earth."
The Doctor stopped abruptly here and began pacing up and down the graveled walk.
"Oh, Doctor! tell me all! I implore you to spare me not, for I feel and know that something that you can, nay, must reveal, most vitally concerns myself."
"Indeed it does, poor stricken child! Indeed it does!" and he kept on pacing up and down the graveled walk.
"Dr. Armstrong! I will bear with you no longer! Who is this man Gordon, and why is it that he so deeply interests me?" I asked, savagely.
"Judith!" and the tone was sad and sepulchral, "Will you give me the word of an earnest, honest woman that you will not betray my trust?"
"The word of a woman is pledged to you, my friend. But hark! Doesn't somebody listen?"
A slight rustling in the bushes was detected, but soon all was still, and we were satisfied that we could not he overheard.
"The man whom you know as Dr. Gordon is my natural son! Nay, don't run as though I were a demon! His mother was a pure and noble woman, whom I loved with an intense devotion which was only equaled by her implicit confidence in me. I was young, passionate, ignorant, undisciplined. My father had failed in business; my mother was proud, and I was, of course, poor. The sins of my father were visited heavily upon me, and my passional nature, of the inordinate cause of which I was wholly ignorant, was not under that control which is born of knowledge. My idol became the disgraced and suffering mother of a child of shame. I would have married her and defied the world, but, poor, true, trusting creature, she was snatched from me by her parents, and after lingering for a few years in an insane asylum, her spirit took its flight."
"Does Mrs. Armstrong know of this?"
"Of course she knew of Susan and the child, but she has no idea that the child is here."
"How came you to marry Mrs. Armstrong, if all this that you have told me is true?"
"How came you to marry poor John Smith? You see, as society is, young people are controlled almost altogether by circumstances. I was known as a popular and rising young physician; Mrs. Armstrong as an heiress; and our well-meaning but ignorant friends did the rest."
"Well, I am sure you have made the best of the lot that has fallen to you, so far as matrimony is concerned. But what of this boy? Where has he been all these years?"
"Poor boy! he has been an Ishmaelite. He is to-day an outlaw!"
"The mystery grows darker. But, Doctor, I must know it all."
"Not to-night, poor, wounded dove!"
"Why in the name of common sense not tell me all to-night?"
"Because curious ears may listen and idle tongues tell tales."
"Well, then, good night, and come to me alone to-morrow."
He disappeared in the shadows, and I, all quaking with a terror I could not understand, emerged into the limpid light of moon and stars, and knelt down to pray.
Hope and peace came to solace me in my perturbation, and I arose from my devotions refreshed and strong.
A figure glided past me through an opening, and hid behind some clumps of lilac. I hurriedly sought out the intruder, and found that my very reliable servant had been spying out my movements.
"Nanette! what are you doing here?"
"Indeed, ma'am, I'll leave your house this very night! A woman who meets respectable men out at night to talk about babies they had before marriage ain't fit company for a young woman who has a character to sustain. I will go right straight to Mrs. Armstrong and get a place, and when I tell her what I've seen to-night there won't be no row! Oh, no!"
"I am ashamed, good reader, to confess to you that I grew angry, but I did. Here was an impudent, ignorant quadroon who had dogged my footsteps to get material for false accusations, and when caught in the disreputable act she had the unblushing audacity to threaten to leave and expose a woman, whom she accused of wickedness, and go to the house or the "respectable" man, whom she adjudged an accomplice, because she had a character to maintain!
I was so indignant that I did not stoop to refute her charges, but I gave her a lesson upon the importance of minding her own business which, if I had only been prudent enough to have said in gentleness, could doubtless have satisfied the girl and made her my fast friend. Better and wiser people than myself have made just such ridiculous mistakes.
I would not let her remain with me till morning, but commanded her to pack up and put off in a hurry, which command she obeyed, vowing vengeance in a way that would have seriously disturbed me, had I not been so conscious of my own rectitude and her audacity that I did not care a fig for her falsehoods.
Entering my little parlor I dropped my trembling frame into a chair. Feathery rays of moonlight tangled themselves In the vines and lattice, and strayed through the trailing tendrils of the sleeping morning glories. The hallowed stillness of the night was broken by a screech owl's note, whose warning carried me, as if by magic, away through the long, dead years, hack to the forest of the long ago, where the same sound had jarred me. Clasping my hands tightly over my throbbing temples, I leaned back in the chair and sat there thinking, thinking, thinking.
A darkness that could be felt encompassed me; magnetic chills ran through my veins; a mellow light gradually acquired form and substance, and a benevolent face, with long, white beard and beaming eyes, stood out in bold relief.
"A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grevious words stir up anger."
These were the words I heard, and while I looked and listened the figure vanished, the bright light and inky darkness disappeared, and in my soul, as in the olden time, the sweet and solemn promise, "I'll explain," attuned itself to melody.
(To be continued.)