Travelling Companions (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919)/De Grey: A Romance
DE GREY: A ROMANCE
IT was the year 1820, and Mrs. De Grey, by the same token, as they say in Ireland (and, for that matter, out of it), had reached her sixty-seventh spring. She was, nevertheless, still a handsome woman, and, what is better yet, still an amiable woman. The untroubled, unruffled course of her life had left as few wrinkles on her temper as on her face. She was tall and full of person, with dark eyes and abundant white hair, which she rolled back from her forehead over a cushion, or some such artifice. The freshness of youth and health had by no means faded out of her cheeks, nor had the smile of her imperturbable courtesy expired on her lips. She dressed, as became a woman of her age and a widow, in black garments, but believed with a great deal of white, with a number of handsome rings on her fair hands. Frequently, in the spring, she wore a little flower or a sprig of green leaves in the bosom of her gown. She had been accused of receiving these little floral ornaments from the hands of Mr. Herbert (of whom I shall have more to say); but the charge is unfounded, inasmuch as they were very carefully selected from a handful cut in the garden by her maid.
That Mrs. De Grey should have been just the placid and elegant old lady that she was, remained, in the eyes of the world at large, in spite of an abundance of a certain sort of evidence in favor of such a result, more or less of a puzzle and a problem. It is true, that every one who knew anything about her knew that she had enjoyed great material prosperity, and had suffered no misfortunes. She was mistress in her own right of a handsome property and a handsome house; she had lost her husband, indeed, within a year after marriage; but, as the late George De Grey had been of a sullen and brooding humor,—to that degree, indeed, as to incur the suspicion of insanity,—her loss, leaving her well provided for, might in strictness have been acounted a gain. Her son, moreover, had never given her a moment's trouble; he had grown up a charming young man, handsome, witty, and wise; he was a model of filial devotion. The lady's health was good; she had half a dozen perfect servants; she had the perpetual company of the incomparable Mr. Herbert; she was as fine a figure of an elderly woman as any in town; she might, therefore, very well have been happy and have looked so. On the other hand, a dozen sensible women had been known to declare with emphasis, that not for all her treasures and her felicity would they have consented to be Mrs. De Grey. These ladies were, of course, unable to give a logical reason for so strong an aversion. But it is certain that there hung over Mrs. De Grey's history and circumstances a film, as it were, a shadow of mystery, which struck a chill upon imaginations which might easily have been kindled into envy of her good fortune. "She lives in the dark," some one had said of her. Close observers did her the honor to believe that there was a secret in her life, but of a wholly undefined character. Was she the victim of some lurking sorrow, or the mistress of some clandestine joy? These imputations, we may easily believe, are partially explained by the circumstance that she was a Catholic, and kept a priest in her house. The unexplained portion might very well, moreover, have been discredited by Mrs. De Grey's perfectly candid and complacent demeanor. It was certainly hard to conceive, in talking with her, to what part of her person one might pin a mystery,—whether on her clear, round eyes or her handsome, benevolent lips. Let us say, then, in defiance of the voice of society, that she was no tragedy queen. She was a fine woman, a dull woman, a perfect gentlewoman. She had taken life, as she liked a cup of tea,—weak, with an exquisite aroma and plenty of cream and sugar. She had never lost her temper for the excellent reason that she had none to lose. She was troubled with no fears, no doubts, no scruples, and blessed with no sacred certainties. She was fond of her son, of the church, of her garden, and of her toilet. She had the very best taste; but, morally, one may say that she had had no history.
Mrs. De Grey had always lived in seclusion; for a couple of years previous to the time of which I speak she had lived in solitude. Her son, on reaching his twenty-third year, had gone to Europe for a long visit, in pursuance of a plan discussed at intervals between his mother and Mr. Herbert during the whole course of his boyhood. They had made no attempt to forecast his future career, or to prepare him for a profession. Strictly, indeed, he was at liberty, like his late father, to dispense with a profession. Not that it was to be wished that he should take his father's life as an example. It was understood by the world at large, and, of course, by Mrs. De Grey and her companion in particular, that this gentleman's existence had been blighted, at an early period, by an unhappy love-affair; and it was notorious that, in consequence, he had spent the few years of his maturity in gloomy idleness and dissipation. Mrs. De Grey, whose own father was an Englishman, reduced to poverty, but with claims to high gentility, professed herself unable to understand why Paul should not live decently on his means. Mr. Herbert declared that in America, in any walk of life, idleness was indecent; and that he hoped the young man would—nominally at least—select a career. It was agreed on both sides, however, that there was no need for haste; and that it was proper, in the first place, he should see the world. The world, to Mrs. De Grey, was little more than a name; but to Mr. Herbert, priest as he was, it was a vivid reality. Yet he felt that the generous and intelligent youth upon whose education he had lavished all the treasures of his tenderness and sagacity, was not unfitted, either by nature or culture, to measure his sinews against its trials and temptations; and that he should love him the better for coming home at twenty-five an accomplished gentleman and a good Catholic, sobered and seasoned by experience, sceptical in small matters, confident in great, and richly replete with good stories. When he came of age, Paul received his walking-ticket, as they say, in the shape of a letter of credit for a handsome sum on certain London bankers. But the young man pocketed the letter, and remained at home, poring over books, lounging in the garden, and scribbling heroic verses. At the end of a year, he plucked up a little ambition, and took a turn through the country, travelling much of the way on honeback. He came back an ardent American, and felt that he might go abroad without danger. During his absence in Europe he had written home innumerable long letters,—compositions so elaborate (in the taste of that day, recent as it is, and so delightful) that, between their pride in his epistolary talent and their longing to see his face, his mother and his ex-tutor would have been at a loss to determine whether he gave them more satisfaction at home or abroad.
With his departure the household was plunged in unbroken repose. Mrs. De Grey neither went out nor entertained company. An occasional morning call was the only claim made upon her hospitality. Mr. Herbert, who was a great scholar, spent all his hours in study; and his patroness sat for the most part alone, arrayed with a perfection of neatness which there was no one to admire (unless it be her waiting-maid, to whom it remained a constant matter of awe), reading a pious book or knitting undergarments for the orthodox needy. At times, indeed, she wrote long letters to her son,—the contents of which Mr. Herbert found it hard to divine. This was accounted a dull life forty years ago; now, doubtless, it would be considered no life at all. It is no matter of wonder, therefore, that finally, one April morning, in her sixty-seventh year, as I have said, Mrs. De Grey suddenly began to suspect that she was lonely. Another long year, at least, was to come and go before Paul's return. After meditating for a while in silence, Mrs. De Grey resolved to take counsel with Father Herbert.
This gentleman, an Englishman by birth, had been an intimate friend of George De Grey, who had made his acquaintance during a visit to Europe, before his marriage. Mr. Herbert was a younger son of an excellent Catholic family, and was at that time beginning, on small resources, the practice of the law. De Grey met him in London, and the two conceived a strong mutual sympathy. Herbert had neither taste for his profession nor apparent ambition of any sort. He was, moreover, in weak health; and his friend found no difficulty in persuading him to accept the place of travelling companion through France and Italy. De Grey carried a very long purse, and was a most liberal friend and patron; and the two young men accomplished their progress as far as Venice in the best spirits and on the best terms. But in Venice, for reasons best known to themselves, they bitterly and irretrievably quarrelled. Some persons said it was over a card-table, and some said it was about a woman. At all events, in consequence, De Grey returned to America, and Herbert repaired to Rome. He obtained admission into a monastery, studied theology, and finally was invested with priestly orders. In America, in his thirty-third year, De Grey married the lady whom I have described. A few weeks after his marriage he wrote to Herbert, expressing a vehement desire to be reconciled. Herbert felt that the letter was that of a most unhappy man; he had already forgiven him; he pitied him, and after a short delay succeeded in obtaining an ecclesiastical mission to the United States. He reached New York and presented himself at his friend's house, which from this moment became his home. Mrs. De Grey had recently given birth to a son; her husband was confined to his room by illness, reduced to a shadow of his former self by repeated sensual excesses. He survived Herbert's arrival but a couple of months; and after his death the rumor went abroad that he had by his last will settled a handsome income upon the priest, on condition that he would continue to reside with his widow, and take the entire charge of his boy's education.
This rumor was confirmed by the event. For twenty-five years, at the time of which I write, Herbert had lived under Mrs. De Grey's roof as her friend and companion and counsellor, and as her son's tutor. Once reconciled to his friend, he had gradually dropped his priestly character. He was of an essentially devout temperament, but he craved neither parish nor pulpit. On the other hand, he had become an indefatigable student. His late friend had bequeathed to him a valuable library, which he gradually enlarged. His passion for study, however, appeared singularly disinterested, inasmuch as, for many years, his little friend Paul was the sole witness and receptacle of his learning. It is true that he composed a large portion of a History of the Catholic Church in America, which, although the manuscript exists, has never seen, and, I suppose, is never destined to see, the light. It is in the very best keeping, for it contains an immense array of facts. The work is written, not from a sympathetic, but from a strictly respectful point of view; but it has a fatal defect,—it lacks unction.
The same complaint might have been made of Father Herbert's personal character. He was the soul of politeness, but it was a cold and formal courtesy. When he smiled, it was, as the French say, with the end of his lips, and when he took your hand, with the end of his fingers. He had had a charming face in his younger days, and when gentlemen dressed their hair with powder, his fine black eyes must must have produced the very best effect. But he had lost his hair, and he wore on his naked crown a little black silk cap. Round his neck he had a black cravat of many folds, without any collar. He was short and slight, with a stoop in his shoulders, and a handsome pair of hands.
"If it were not for a sad sign to the contrary," said Mrs. De Grey, in pursuance of her resolve to take counsel of her friend, "I should believe I am growing younger."
"What is the sign to the contrary?" asked Herbert.
"I'm losing my eyes. I can't see to read. Suppose I should become blind."
"And what makes you suspect that you are growing young again?"
"I feel lonely. I lack company. I miss Paul."
"You will have Paul back in a year."
"Yes; but in the mean while I shall be miserable. I wish I knew some nice person whom I might ask to stay with me."
"Why don't you take a companion,—some poor gentlewoman in search of a home? She would read to you, and talk to you."
"No; that would be dreadful. She would be sure to be old and ugly. I should like someone to take Paul's place,—some one young and fresh like him. We're all so terribly old, in the house. You're at least seventy; I'm sixty-five" (Mrs. De Grey was pleased to say); "Deborah is sixty, the cook and coachman are fifty-five apiece."
"You want a young girl then?"
"Yes, some nice, fresh young girl, who would laugh once in a while, and make a little music,—a little sound in the house."
"Well," said Herbert, after reflecting a moment, "you had better suit yourself before Paul comes home. You have only a year."
"Dear me," said Mrs. De Grey; "I shouldn't feel myself obliged to turn her out on Paul's account."
Father Herbert looked at his companion with a penetrating glance. "Nevertheless, my dear lady," he said, "you know what I mean."
"O yes, I know what you mean,—and you. Father Herbert, know what I think."
"Yes, madam, and, allow me to add, that I don't greatly care. Why should I? I hope with all my heart that you'll never find yourself compelled to think otherwise."
"It is certain," said Mrs. De Grey, "that Paul has had time to play out his little tragedy a dozen times over."
"His father," rejoined Herbert, gravely, "was twenty-six years old."
At these words Mrs. De Grey looked at the priest with a slight frown and a flushed cheek. But he took no pains to meet her eyes, and in a few moments she had recovered, in silence, her habitual calmness.
Within a week after this conversation Mrs. De Grey observed at church two persons who appeared to be strangers in the congregation: an elderly woman, meanly clad, and evidently in ill health, but with a great refinement of person and manner; and a young girl whom Mrs. De Grey took for her daughter. On the following Sunday she again found them at their devotions, and was forcibly struck by a look of sadness and trouble in their faces and attitude. On the third Sunday they were absent; but it happened that during the walk, going to confession, she met the young girl, pale, alone, and dressed in mourning, apparently just leaving the confessional. Something in her gait and aspect assured Mrs. De Grey that she was alone in the world, friendless and helpless; and the good lady, who at times was acutely sensible of her own isolation in society, felt a strong and sympathetic prompting to speak to the . stranger, and ask the secret of her sorrow. She stopped her before she left the church, and, addressing her with the utmost kindness, succeeded so speedily in winning her confidence that in half an hour she was in possession of the young girl's entire history. She had just lost her mother, and she found herself in the great city penniless, and all but houseless. They were from the South; her father had been an officer in the navy, and had perished at sea, two years before. Her mother's health had failed, and they had come to New York, ill-advisedly enough, to consult an eminent physician. He had been very kind, he had taken no fees, but his skill had been applied in vain. Their money had melted away in other directions,—for food and lodging and clothing. There had been enough left to give the poor lady a decent burial; but no means of support save her own exertions remained for the young girl. She had no relatives to look to, but she professed herserf abundantly willing to work. "I look weak," she said, "and pale, but I'm really strong. It's only that I'm tired,—and sad. I'm ready to do anything. But I don't know where to look." She had lost her color and the roundness and elasticity of youth; she was thin and ill-dressed; but Mrs. De Grey saw that at her best she must be properly a very pretty creature, and that she was evidently, by rights, a charming girl. She looked at the elder lady with lustrous, appealing blue eyes from under the hideous black bonnet in which her masses of soft light hair were tucked away. She assured her that she had received a very good education, and that she played on the piano-forte. Mrs. De Grey fancied her divested of her rusty weeds, and dressed in a white frock and a blue ribbon, reading aloud at an open window, or touching the keys of her old not unmelodious spinnet; for if she took her (as she mentally phrased it) Mrs. De Grey was resolved that she would not be harassed with the sight of her black garments. It was plain that, frightened and faint and nervous as she was, the poor child would take any service unconditionally. She kissed her then tenderly within the sacred precinct, and led her away to her carriage, quite forgetting her business with her confessor. On the following day Margaret Aldis (such was the young girl's name) was transferred in the same vehicle to Mrs. De Grey's own residence.
This edifice was demolished some years ago, and the place where it stood forms at the present moment the very center of a turbulent thoroughfare. But at the period of which I speak it stood on the outskirts of the town, with as vast a prospect of open country in one direction as in the other of close-built streets. It was an excellent old mansion, moreover, in the best taste of the time, with large square rooms and broad halls and deep windows, and, above all, a delightful great garden, hedged off from the road by walls of dense verdure. Here, steeped in repose and physical comfort, rescued from the turbid stream of common life, and placed apart in the glow of tempered sunshine, valued, esteemed, caressed, and yet feeling that she was not a mere passive object of charity, but that she was doing her simple utmost to requite her protectress, poor Miss Aldis bloomed and flowered afresh. With rest and luxury and leisure, her natural gayety and beauty came back to her. Her beauty was not dazzling, indeed, nor her gayety obtrusive; but, united, they were the flower of girlish grace. She still retained a certain tenuity and fragility of aspect, a lightness of tread, a softness of voice, a faintness of coloring, which suggested an intimate acquaintance with suffering. But there seemed to burn, nevertheless, in her deep blue eyes the light of an almost passionate vitality; and there sat on her firm, pale lips the utterance of a determined, devoted will. It seemed at times as if she gave herself up with a sensuous, reckless, half-thankless freedom to the mere consciousness of security. It was evident that she had an innate love of luxury. She would sometimes sit, motionless, for hours, with her head thrown back, and her eyes slowly wandering, in a silent ecstasy of content. At these times Father Herbert, who had observed her attentively from the moment of her arrival (for, scholar and recluse as he was, he had not lost the faculty of appreciating feminine grace),—at these times the old priest would watch her covertly and marvel at the fantastic, soulless creature whom Mrs. De Grey had taken to her side. One evening, after a prolonged stupor of this sort, in which the young girl had neither moved nor spoken, sitting like one whose soul had detached itself and was wandering through space, she rose, on Mrs. De Grey's at last giving her an order, and moved forward as if in compliance; and then, suddenly rushing toward the old woman, she fell on her knees, and buried her head in her lap and burst into a paroxysm of sobs. Herbert, who had been standing by, went and laid one hand on her head and with the other made over it the sign of the cross, in the manner of a benediction,—a consecration of the passionate gratitude which had finally broken out into utterance. From this moment he loved her.
Margaret read aloud to Mrs. De Grey, and on Sunday evenings sang in a clear, sweet voice the chants of their Church, and occupied herself constantly with fine needlework, in which she possessed great skill. They spent the long summer mornings together, in reading and work and talk. Margaret told her companion the simple, sad details of the history of which she had already given her the outline; and Mrs. De Grey, who found it natural to look upon them as a kind of practical romance organized for her entertainment, made her repeat them over a dozen times. Mrs. De Grey, too, honored the young girl with a recital of her own biography, which, in its vast vacuity, produced upon Margaret's mind a vague impression of grandeur. The vacuity, indeed, was relieved by the figure of Paul, whom Mrs. De Grey never grew weary of describing, and of whom, finally, Margaret grew very fond of thinking. She listened most attentively to Mrs. De Grey's eulogies of her son, and thought it a great pity he was not at home. And then she began to long for his return, and then, suddenly, she began to fear it. Perhaps he would dislike her being in the house, and turn her out of doors. It was evident that his mother was not prepared to contradict him. Perhaps—worse still—he would marry some foreign woman, and bring her home, and she would turn wickedly jealous of Margaret (in the manner of foreign women). De Grey, roaming through Europe, took for granted, piously enough, that he was never absent from his good mother's thoughts; but he remained superbly unconscious of the dignity which he had usurped in the meditations of her humble companion. Truly, we know where our lives begin, but who shall say where they end? Here was a careless young gentleman whose existence enjoyed a perpetual echo in the soul of a poor girl utterly unknown to him. Mrs. De Grey had two portraits of her son, which, of course, she lost no time in exhibiting to Margaret,—one taken in his boyhood, with brilliant red hair and cheeks, the lad's body encased in a bright blue jacket, and his neck encircled in a frill, open very low; the other, executed just before his departure, a handsome young man in a buff waistcoat, clean shaven, with an animated countenance, dark, close-curling auburn hair, and very fine eyes. The former of these designs Margaret thought a very pretty child; but to the other the poor girl straightway lost her heart,—the more easily that Mrs. De Grey assured her, that, although the picture was handsome enough, it conveyed but the faintest idea of her boy's adorable flesh and blood. In a couple of months arrived a long-expected letter from Paul, and with it another portrait,—a miniature, painted in Paris by a famous artist. Here Paul appeared a far more elegant figure than in the work of the American painter. In what the change consisted it was hard to tell; but his mother declared that it was easy to see that he had spent two years in the best company in Europe.
"Oh, the best company!" said Father Herbert, who knew the force of this term. And, smiling a moment with inoffensive scorn, he relapsed into his wonted gravity.
"I think he looks very sad," said Margaret, timidly.
"Fiddlesticks!" cried Herbert, impatiently. "He looks like a coxcomb. Of course, it's the Frechman's fault," he added, more gently. "Why on earth does he send us his picture at all? It's a great piece of impertinence. Does he think we've forgotten him? When I want to remember my boy, I have something better to look to than the flaunting bit of ivory."
At these words the two ladies went off, carrying the portrait with them, to read Paul's letter in private. It was in eight pages, and Margaret read it aloud. Then, when she had finished, she read it again; and in the evening she read it once more. The next day, Mrs. De Grey, taking the young girl quite into her confidence, brought out a large packet containing his earlier letters, and Margaret spent the whole morning in reading them over aloud. That evening she took a stroll in the garden alone,—the garden in which he had played as a boy, and lounged and dreamed as a young man. She found his name—his beautiful name—rudely cut on a wooden bench. Introduced, as it seemed to her that she had been by his letters, into the precincts of his personality, the mystery of his being, the magic circle of his feelings and opinions and fancies; wandering by his side, unseen, over Europe, and treading, unheard, the sounding pavements of famous churches and palaces, she felt that she tasted for the first time of the substance and sweetness of life. Margaret walked about for an hour in the starlight, among the dusky, perfumed alleys. Mrs. De Grey, feeling unwell, had gone to her room. The young girl heard the far-off hum of the city slowly decrease and expire, and then, when the stillness of the night was unbroken, she came back into the parlor across the long window, and lit one of the great silver candlesticks that decorated the ends of the mantel. She carried it to the wall where Mrs. De Grey had suspended her son's miniature, having first inserted it in an immense gold frame, from which she had expelled a less valued picture. Margaret felt that she must see the portrait before she went to bed. There was a certain charm and ravishment in beholding it privately by candlelight. The wind had risen,—a warm west wind,—and the long white curtains of the open windows swayed and bulged in the gloom in a spectral fashion. Margaret guarded the flame of the candle with her hand, and gazed at the polished surface of the portrait, warm in the light, beneath its glittering plate of glass. What an immensity of life and passion was concentrated into those few square inches of artificial color! The young man's eyes seemed to gaze at her with a look of profound recognition. They held her fascinated; she lingered on the spot, unable to move. Suddenly the clock on the chimney-piece rang out a single clear stroke. Margaret started and turned about, at the thought that it was already half past ten. She raised her candle aloft to look at the dial-plate; and perceived three things: that it was one o'clock in the morning, that her candle was half burnt out, and that some one was watching her from the other side of the room. Setting down her light, she recognized Father Herbert.
"Well, Miss Aldis," he said, coming into the light, "what do you think of it?"
Margaret was startled and confused, but not abashed. "How long have I been here?" she asked, simply.
"I have no idea. I myself have been here half an hour."
"It was very kind of you not to disturb me," said Margaret, less simply.
"It was a very pretty picture," said Herbert.
"Oh, it's beautiful!" cried the young girl, casting another glance at the portrait over her shoulder.
The old man smiled sadly, and turned away, and then, coming back, "How do you like our young man, Miss Aldis?" he asked, apparently with a painful effort.
"I think he's very handsome," said Margaret, frankly.
"He's not so handsome as that," said Herbert.
"His mother says he's handsomer."
"A mother's testimony in such cases is worth very little. Paul is well enough, but he's no miracle."
"I think he looks sad," said Margaret. "His mother says he's very gay."
"He may have changed vastly within two years. Do you think," the old man added, after a pause, "that he looks like a man in love?"
"I don't know," said Margaret, in a low voice. "I never saw one."
"Never?" said the priest, with an earnestness which surprised the young girl.
She blushed a little. "Never, Father Herbert."
The priest's dark eyes were fixed on her with a strange intensity of expression. "I hope, my child, you never may," he said, solemnly.
The tone of his voice was not unkind, but it seemed to Margaret as if there were something cruel and chilling in the wish. "Why not I as well as another?" she asked.
The old man shrugged his shoulders. "O, it's a long story," he said.
The summer passed away and flushed into autumn, and the autumn slowly faded, and finally expired in the odd embrace of December. Mrs. De Grey had written to her son of her having taken Margaret into her service. At this time came a letter in which the young man was pleased to express his satisfaction at this measure. "Present my compliments to Miss Aldis," he wrote, "and assure her of my gratitude for the comfort she has given my dear mother,—of which, indeed, I hope before very long to inform her in person." In writing these good-natured words Paul De Grey little suspected the infinite reverberation they were to have in poor Margaret's heart. A month later arrived a letter, which was handed to Mrs. De Grey at breakfast "You will have received my letter of December 3d," it began (a letter which had miscarried and failed to arrive), "and will have formed your respective opinions of its contents." As Mrs. De Grey read these words, Father Herbert looked at Margaret; she had turned pale. "Favorable or not," the letter continued, "I am sorry to be obliged to bid you undo them again. But my engagement to Miss L. is broken off. It had become impossible. As I made no attempt to give you a history of it, or to set forth my motives, so I shall not now attempt to go into the logic of the rupture. But it's broken clean off, I assure you. Amen." And the letter passed to other matters, leaving our friends sadly perplexed. They awaited the arrival of the missing letter; but all in vain; it never came. Mrs. De Grey immediately wrote to her son, urgently requesting an explanation of the events to which he had referred. His next letter, however, contained none of the desired information. Mrs. De Grey repeated her request. Whereupon Paul wrote that he would tell her the story when he had reached home. He hated to talk about it. "Don't be uneasy, dear mother," he added; "Heaven has insured me against a relapse. Miss L. died three weeks ago at Naples." As Mrs. De Grey read these words, she laid down the letter and looked at Father Herbert, who had been called to hear it. His pale face turned ghastly white, and he returned the old woman's gaze with compressed lips and a stony immobility in his eyes. Then, suddenly, a fierce, inarticulate cry broke from his throat, and, doubling up his fist, he brought it down with a terrible blow on the table. Margaret sat watching him, amazed. He rose to his feet, seized her in his arms, and pressed her on his neck.
"My child! my child!" he cried, in a broken voice, "I have always loved you! I have been harsh and cold and crabbed. I was fearful. The thunder has fallen! Forgive me, child. I'm myself again." Margaret, frightened, disengaged herself, but he kept her hand. "Poor boy!" he cried, with a tremulous sigh.
Mrs. De Grey sat smelling her vinaigrette, but not visibly discomposed. "Poor boy!" she repeated, but without a sigh,—which gave the words an ironical sound.—"He had ceased to care for her," she said.
"Ah, madam!" cried the priest, "don't blaspheme. Go down on your knees, and thank God that we have been spared that hideous sight!"
Mystified and horrified, Margaret drew her hand from his grasp, and looked with womdering eyes at Mrs. De Grey. She smiled faintly, touched her forefinger to her forehead, tapped it, raised her eyebrows, and shook her head.
From counting the months that were to elapse before Paul's return, our friends came to counting the weeks, and then the days. The month of May arrived; Paul had sailed from England. At this time Mrs. De Grey opened her son's room, and caused it to be prepared for occupation. The contents were just as he had left them; she bade Margaret come in and see it. Margaret looked at her face in his mirror, and sat down a moment on his sofa, and examined the books on his shelves. They seemed a prodigious array; they were in several languages, and gave a deep impression of their owner's attainments. Over the chimney hung a small sketch in pencil, which Margaret made haste to inspect,—a likeness of a young girl, skilfully enough drawn. The original had apparently been very handsome, in the dark style; and in the comer of the sketch was written the artist's name,—De Grey. Margaret looked at the portrait in silence, with quickened heartbeats.
"Is this Mr. Paul's?" she asked at last of her companion.
"It belongs to Paul," said Mrs. De Grey. "He used to be very fond of it, and insisted upon hanging it there. His father sketched it before our marriage."
Margaret drew a breath of relief. "And who is the lady?" she asked.
"I hardly know. Some foreign person, I think, that Mr. De Grey had been struck with. There's something about her in the other corner."
In effect, Margaret detected on the opposite side of the sketch, written in minute character, the word "obiit, 1786."
"You don't know Latin, I take it, my dear," said Mrs. De Grey, as Margaret read the inscription. "It means that she died thirty-four good years ago."
"Poor girl!" said Margaret, softly. As they were leaving the room, she lingered on the threshold and looked about her, wishing that she might leave some little memento of her visit. "If we knew just when he would arrive," she said, "I would put some flowers on his table. But they might fade."
As Mrs. De Grey assured her that the moment of his arrival was quite uncertain, she left her fancied nosegay uncut, and spent the rest of the day in a delightful tremor of anticipation, ready to see the dazzling figure of a young man, equipped with strange foreign splendor, start up before her and look at her in cold surprise, and hurry past her in search of his mother. At every sound of footsteps or of an opening door she laid down her work, and listened curiously. In the evening, as if by a common instinct of expectancy, Father Herbert met Mrs. De Grey in the front drawing-room,—an apartment devoted exclusively to those festivities which never occurred in the annals of this tranquil household.
"A year ago to-day, madam," said Margaret, as they all sat silent among the gathering shadows, "I came into your house. To-day ends a very happy year."
"Let us hope," said Father Herbert, sententiously, "that to-morrow will begin another."
"Ah, my dear lady!" cried Margaret, with emotion; "my good father,—my only friends,—what harm can come to me with you? It was you who rescued me from harm." Her heart was swollen with gratitude, and her eyes with rising tears. She gave a long shudder at the thought of the life that might have been her fate. But, feeling a natural indisposition to obtrude her peculiar sensations upon the attention of persons so devoutly absorbed in the thought of a coming joy, she left her place, and wandered away into the garden. Before many minutes, a little gate opened in the paling, not six yards from where she stood. A man came in, whom, in the dim light, she knew to be Paul De Grey. Approaching her rapidly, he made a movement as if to greet her, but stopped suddenly, and removed his hat.
"Ah, you're Miss—the young lady," he said.
He had forgotten her name. This was something other, something less felicitous, than the cold surprise of the figure in Margaret's vision. Nevertheless, she answered him, audibly enough: "They are in the drawing-room; they expect you."
He bounded along the path, and entered the house. She followed him slowly to the window, and stood without listening. The silence of the young man's welcome told of its warmth.
Paul De Grey had made good use of his sojourn in Europe; he had lost none of his old merits, and had gained a number of new ones. He was by nature and culture an intelligent, amiable, accomplished fellow. It was his fortune to possess a peculiar, indefinable charm of person and manner. He was tall and slight of structure, but compact, firm, and active, with a clear, fair complexion, an open, prominent brow, crisp auburn hair, and eyes—a glance, a smile—radiant with youth and intellect. His address was frank, manly, and direct; and yet it seemed to Margaret that his bearing was marked by a certain dignity and elegance—at times even verging upon formalism—which distinguished it from that of other men. It was not, however, that she detected in his character any signs of that strange principle of melancholy which had exerted so powerful an action upon the other members of the household (and from what she was able to gather, on his father). She fancied, on the contrary, that she had never known less levity associated with a more exquisite mirth. If Margaret had been of a more analytical turn of mind, she would have told herself that Paul De Grey's nature was eminently aristocratic. But the young girl contented herself with understanding it less, and secretly loving it more; and when she was in want of an epithet, she chose a simpler term. Paul was like a ray of splendid sunshine in the dull, colorless lives of the two women; he filled the house with light and heat and joy. He moved, to Margaret's fancy, in a circle of almost supernatural glory. His words, as they fell from his lips, seemed diamonds and pearls; and, in truth, his conversation, for a month after his return, was in the last degree delightful. Mrs. De Grey's house was par excellence the abode of leisure,—a castle of indolence; and Paul in talking, and his companions in listening, were conscious of no jealous stress of sordid duties. The summer days were long, and Paul's daily fund of loquacity was inexhaustible. A week after his arrival, after breakfast, Father Herbert contracted the habit of carrying him off to his study, and Margaret, passing the half-open door, would hear the changeful music of his voice. She begrudged the old man, at these times, the exclusive enjoyment of so much eloquence. She felt that with his tutor, Paul's talk was far wiser and richer than it was possible it should be with two simple-minded women; and the young girl had a pious longing to hear him, to see him, at his best. A brilliant best it was to Father Herbert's mind; for Paul had surpassed his fondest hopes. He had amassed such a store of knowledge; he had learned all the good that the old man had enjoined upon him; and, although he had not wholly ignored the evil against which the priest had warned him, he judged it so wisely and wittily! Women and priests, as a general thing, like a man none the less for not being utterly innocent. Father Herbert took an unutterable satisfaction in the happy development of Paul's character. He was more than the son of his loins: he was the child of his intellect, his patience, and devotion.
The afternoons and evenings Paul was free to devote to his mother, who, out of her own room, never dispensed for an hour with Margaret's attendance. This, thanks to the young girl's delicate tact and sympathy, had now become an absolute necessity. Margaret sat by with her work, while Paul talked, and marvelled at his inexhaustible stock of gossip and anecdote and forcible, vivid description. He made cities and churches and galleries and playhouses swarm and shine before her enchanted senses, and reproduced the people he had met and the scenery through which he had travelled, until the young girl's head turned at the rapid succession of images and pictures. And then, at times, he would seem to grow weary, and would sink into silence; and Margaret, looking up askance from her work, would see his eyes absently fixed, and a faint smile on his face, or else a cold gravity, and she would wonder what far-off memory had called back his thoughts to that unknown European world. Sometimes, less frequently, when she raised her eyes, she found him watching her own figure, her bent head, and the busy movement of her hands. But (as yet, at least) he never turned away his glance in confusion; he let his eyes rest, and justified his scrutiny in some simple and natural remark.
But as the weeks passed by, and the summer grew to its fulness, Mrs. De Grey contracted the habit of going after dinner to her own room, where, we may respectfully conjecture, she passed the afternoon in dishabille and slumber. But De Grey and Miss Aldis tacitly agreed together that, in the prime and springtime of life, it was stupid folly to waste in any such fashion the longest and brightest hours of the year; and so they, on their side, contracted the habit of sitting in the darkened drawing-room, and gossiping away the time until within an hour of tea. Sometimes, for a change, they went across the garden into a sort of summerhouse, which occupied a central point in the enclosure, and stood with its face averted from the mansion, and looking to the north, and with its sides covered with dense, clustering vines. Within, against the wall, was a deep garden bench, and in the middle a table, upon which Margaret placed her work-basket, and the young man the book, which, under the pretence of meaning to read, he usually carried in his hand. Within was coolness and deep shade and silence, and without the broad glare of the immense summer sky. When I say there was silence, I mean that there was nothing to interrupt the conversation of these happy idlers. Their talk speedily assumed that desultory, volatile character, which is the sign of great intimacy. Margaret found occasion to ask Paul a great many questions which she had not felt at liberty to ask in the presence of his mother, and to demand additional light upon a variety of little points which Mrs. De Grey had been content to leave in obscurity. Paul was perfectly communicative. If Miss Aldis cared to hear, he was assuredly glad to talk. But suddenly it struck him that her attitude of mind was a singular provocation to egotism, and that for six weeks, in fact, he had done nothing but talk about himself,—his own adventures, sensations, and opinions.
"I declare, Miss Aldis," he cried, "you're making me a monstrous egotist. That's all you women are good for. I shall not say another word about Mr. Paul De Grey. Now it's your turn."
"To talk about Mr. Paul De Grey?" asked Margaret, with a smile.
"No, about Miss Margaret Aldis,—which, by the way, is a very pretty name."
"By the way, indeed!" said Margaret. "By the way for you, perhaps. But for me, my pretty name is all I have."
"If you mean, Miss Aldis," cried Paul, "that your beauty is all in your name—"
"I'm sadly mistaken. Well, then, I don't. The rest is in my imagination."
"Very likely. It's certainly not in mine."
Margaret was, in fact, at this time, extremely pretty; a little pale with the heat, but rounded and developed by rest and prosperity, and animated—half inspired, I may call it—with tender gratitude. Looking at her as he said these words, De Grey was forcibly struck with the interesting character of her face. Yes, most assuredly, her beauty was a potent reality. The charm of her face was forever refreshed and quickened by the deep loveliness of her soul.
"I mean literally, Miss Aldis," said the young man, "that I wish you to talk about yourself. I want to hear your adventures. I demand it,— I need it."
"My adventures?" said Margaret "I have never had any."
"Good!" cried Paul; "that in itself is an adventure."
In this way it was that Margaret came to relate to her companion the short story of her young life. The story was not all told, however, short as it was, in a single afternoon; that is, a whole week after she began, the young girl found herself setting Paul right with regard to a matter of which he had received a false impression.
"Nay, he is married," said Margaret; "I told you so."
"Oh, he is married?" said Paul.
"Yes; his wife's an immense fat woman."
"Oh, his wife's an immense fat woman?"
"Yes; and he thinks all the world of her."
"Oh, he thinks all the world of her!"
It was natural that, in this manner, with a running commentary supplied by Paul, the narrative should proceed slowly. But, in addition to the observations here quoted, the young man maintained another commentary, less audible and more profound. As he listened to this frank and fair-haired maiden, and reflected that in the wide world she might turn in confidence and sympathy to other minds than his,—as he found her resting her candid thoughts and memories on his judgment, as she might lay her white hand on his arm,—it seemed to him that the pure intentions with which she believed his soul to be peopled took in her glance a graver and higher cast. All the gorgeous color faded out of his recent European reminiscences and regrets, and he was sensible only of Margaret's presence, and of the tender rosy radiance in which she sat and moved, as in a sort of earthly halo. Could it be, he asked himself, that while he was roaming about Europe, in a vague, restless search for his future, his end, his aim, these things were quietly awaiting him at his own deserted hearth-stone, gathered together in the immaculate person of the sweetest and fairest of women? Finally, one day, this view of the case struck him so forcibly, that he cried out in an ecstasy of belief and joy.
"Margaret," he said, "my mother found you in church, and there, before the altar, she kissed you and took you into her arms. I have often thought of that scene. It makes it no common adoption."
"I'm sure I have often thought of it," said Margaret.
"It makes it sacred and everlasting," said Paul. "On that blessed day you came to us for ever and ever."
Margaret looked at him with a face tremulous between smiles and tears. "For as long as you will keep me," she said. "Ah, Paul!" For in an instant the young man had expressed all his longing and his passion.
With the greatest affection and esteem for his mother, Paul had always found it natural to give precedence to Father Herbert in matters of appeal and confidence. The old man possessed a delicacy of intellectual tact which made his sympathy and his counsel alike delightful. Some days after the conversation upon a few of the salient points of which I have lightly touched, Paul and Margaret renewed their mutual vows in the summer-house. They now possessed that deep faith in the sincerity of their own feelings, and that undoubting delight in each other's reiterated protests, which left them nothing to do but to take their elders into their confidence. They came through the garden together, and on reaching the threshold Margaret found that she had left her scissors in the garden hut; whereupon Paul went back in search of them. The young girl came into the house, reached the foot of the staircase, and waited for her lover. At this moment Father Herbert appeared in the open doorway of his study, and looked at Margaret with a melancholy smile. He stood, passing one hand slowly over another, and gazing at her with kindly, darksome looks.
"It seems to me, Mistress Margaret," he said, "that you keep all this a marvellous secret from your poor old Doctor Herbert."
In the presence of this gentle and venerable scholar, Margaret felt that she had no need of vulgar blushing and simpering and negation. "Dear Father Herbert," she said, with heavenly simpleness, "I have just been begging Paul to tell you."
"Ah, my daughter,"—and the old man but half stifled a sigh,—"it's all a strange and terrible mystery."
Paul came in and crossed the hall with the light step of a lover.
"Paul," said Margaret, "Father Herbert knows."
"Father Herbert knows!" repeated the priest,—"Father Herbert knows everything. You're very innocent for lovers."
"You're very wise, sir, for a priest," said Paul, blushing.
"I knew it a week ago," said the old man, gravely.
"Well, sir," said Paul, "we love you none the less for loving each other so much more. I hope you'll not love us the less."
"Father Herbert thinks it's 'terrible,'" said Margaret, smiling.
"O Lord!" cried Herbert, raising his hand to his head as if in pain. He turned about, and went into his room.
Paul drew Margaret's hand through his arm and followed the priest. "You suffer, sir," he said, "at the thought of losing us,—of our leaving you. That certainly needn't trouble you. Where should we go? As long as you live, as long as my mother lives, we shall all make but a single household."
The old man appeared to have recovered his composure. "Ah!" he said; "be happy, no matter where, and I shall be happy. You're very young."
"Not so young," said Paul, laughing, but with a natural disinclination to be placed in too boyish a light. "I'm six-and-twenty. J'ai vécu,—I've lived.":
"He's been through everything," said Margaret, leaning on his arm.
"Not quite everything." And Paul, bending his eyes, with a sober smile, met her upward glance.
"Oh, he's modest," murmured Father Herbert.
"Paul's been all but married already," said Margaret.
The young man made a gesture of impatience. Herbert stood with his eyes fixed on his face.
"Why do you speak of that poor girl?" said Paul. Whatever satisfaction he may have given Margaret on the subject of his projected marriage in Europe, he had since his return declined, on the plea that it was extremely painful, to discuss the matter either with his mother or with his old tutor.
"Miss Aldis is perhaps jealous," said Herbert, cunningly.
"O Father Herbert!" cried Margaret.
"There is little enough to be jealous of," said Paul.
"There's a fine young man!" cried Herbert. "One would think he had never cared for her."
"It's perfectly true."
"Oh!" said Herbert, in a tone of deep reproach, laying his hand on the young man's arm. "Don't say that."
"Nay, sir, I shall say it. I never said anything less to her. She enchanted me, she entangled me, but, before Heaven, I never loved her!"
"Oh, God help you!" cried the priest. He sat down, and buried his face in his hands. Margaret turned deadly pale, and recalled the scene which had occurred on the receipt of Paul's letter, announcing the rupture of his engagement. "Father Herbert," she cried, "what horrible, hideous mystery do you keep locked up in your bosom? If it concerns me,—if it concerns Paul,—I demand of you to tell us."
Moved apparently by the young girl's tone of agony to a sense of the needfulness of self-control, Herbert uncovered his face, and directed to Margaret a rapid glance of entreaty. She perceived that it meant that, at any cost, she should be silent. Then, with a sublime attempt at dissimulation, he put out his hands, and laid one on each of his companions' shoulders. "Excuse me, Paul," he said, "I'm a foolish old man. Old scholars are a sentimental, a superstitious race. We believe still that all women are angels, and that all men—"
"That all men are fools," said Paul, smiling.
"Exactly. Whereas, you see," whispered Father Herbert, "there are no fools but ourselves."
Margaret listened to this fantastic bit of dialogue with a beating heart, fully determined not to content herself with any such flimsy explanation of the old man's tragical allusions. Meanwhile, Herbert urgently besought Paul to defer for a few days making known his engagement to his mother. The next day but one was Sunday, the last in August. The heat for a week had been oppressive, and the air was now sullen and brooding, as if with an approaching stonn. As she left the breakfast-table, Margaret felt her arm touched by Father Herbert.
"Don't go to church," he said, in a low voice. "Make a pretext, and stay at home."
"Say you've letters to write."
"Letters?" and Margaret smiled half bitterly. "To whom should I write letters?"
"Dear me, then say you're ill. I give you absolution. When they're gone, come to me."
At church-time, accordingly, Margaret feigned a slight indisposition; and Mrs. De Grey, taking her son's arm, mounted into her ancient deep-seated coach, and rolled away from the door. Margaret immediately betook herself to Father Herbert's apartment. She saw in the old man's face the portent of some dreadful avowal. His whole figure betrayed the weight of an inexorable necessity.
"My daughter," said the priest, "you are a brave, pious girl—"
"Ah!" cried Margaret, "it's something horrible, or you wouldn't say that. Tell me at once!"
"You need all your courage."
"Doesn't he love me?—Ah, in Heaven's name, speak!"
"If he didn't love you with a damning passion, I should have nothing to say."
"Oh, then, say what you please!" said Margaret.
"Well then,—you must leave this house."
"Why?—when?—where must I go?"
"This moment, if possible. You must go anywhere,—the further the better,—the further from him. Listen, my child' said the old man, his bosom wrung by the stunned, bewildered look of Margaret's face; "it's useless to protest, to weep, to resist. It's the voice of fate!"
"And pray, sir," said Margaret, "of what do you accuse me?"
"I accuse no one. I don't even accuse Heaven."
"But there's a reason,—there's a motive—"
Herbert laid his hand on his lips, pointed to a seat, and turning to an ancient chest on the table, unlocked it, and drew from it a small volume, bound in vellum, apparently an old illuminated missal. "There's nothing for it," he said, "but to tell you the whole story."
He sat down before the young girl, who held herself rigid and expectant. The room grew dark with the gathering storm-clouds, and the distant thunder muttered.
"Let me read you ten words," said the priest, opening at a fly-leaf of the volume, on which a memorandum or register had been inscribed in a great variety of hands, all minute and some barely legible. "God be with you!" and the old man crossed himself. Involuntarily, Margaret did the same. "'George De Grey,'" he read, "'met and loved, September, 1786, Antonietta Gambini, of Milan. She died October 9th, same year. John De Grey married, April 4th, 1749, Henrietta Spencer. She died May 7th. George De Grey engaged himself October, 1710, to Mary Fortescue. She died October 31st. Paul De Grey, aged nineteen, betrothed June, 1672, at Bristol, England, to Lucretia Lefevre, aged thirty-one, of that place. She died July 27th. John De Grey, affianced January 10th, 1649, to Blanche Ferrars, of Castle Ferrars, Cumberland. She died, by her lover's hand, January 12th. Stephen De Grey offered his hand to Isabel Stirling, October, 1619. She died within the month. Paul De Grey exchanged pledges with Magdalen Scrope, August, 1586. She died in childbirth, September, 1587.'" Father Herbert paused. "Is it enough?" he asked, looking up with glowing eyes. "There are two pages more. The De Greys are an ancient line; they keep their records."
Margaret had listened with a look of deepening, fierce, passionate horror,—a look more of anger and of wounded pride than of terror. She sprang towards the priest with the lightness of a young cat, and dashed the hideous record from his hand.
"What abominable nonsense is this!" she cried. "What does it mean? I barely heard it; I despise it; I laugh at it."
The old man seized her arm with a firm grasp. "Paul De Grey," he said, in an awful voice, "exchanged pledge with Margaret Aldis, August, 1821. She died—with the falling leaves."
Poor Margaret looked about her for help, inspiration, comfort of some kind. The room contained nothing but serried lines of old parchment-covered books, each seeming a grim repetition of the volume at her feet. A vast peal of thunder resounded through the noon-day stillness. Suddenly her strength deserted her; she felt her weakness and loneliness, the grasp of the hand of fate. Father Herbert put out his arms, she flung herself on his neck, and burst into tears.
"Do you still refuse to leave him?" asked the priest "If you leave him, you're saved."
"Saved?" cried Margaret, raising her head; "and Paul?"
"Ah, there it is.—He'll forget you."
The young girl pondered a moment. "To have him do that," she said, "I should apparently have to die." Then wringing her hands with a fresh burst of grief, "Is it certain," she cried, "that there are no exceptions?"
"None, my child"; and he picked up the volume. "You see it's the first love, the first passion. After that, they're innocent. Look at Mrs. De Grey. The race is accursed. It's an awful, inscrutable mystery. I fancied that you were safe, my daughter, and that that poor Miss L. had borne the brunt. But Paul was at pains to undeceive me. I've searched his life, I've probed his conscience: it's a virgin heart. Ah, my child, I dreaded it from the first. I trembled when you came into the house. I wanted Mrs. De Grey to turn you off. But she laughs at it,—she calls it an old-wife's tale. She was safe enough; her husband didn't care two straws for her. But there's a little dark-eyed maiden buried in Italian soil who could tell her another story. She withered, my child. She was life itself,—an incarnate ray of her own Southern sun. She died of De Grey's kisses. Don't ask me how it began, it's always been so. It goes back to the night of time. One of the race, they say, came home from the East, from the crusades, infected with the germs of the plague. He had pledged his love-faith to a young girl before his departure, and it had been arranged that the wedding should immediately succeed his return. Feeling unwell, he consulted an elder brother of the bride, a man versed in fantastic medical lore, and supposed to be gifted with magical skill. By him he was assured that he was plague-stricken, and that he was in duty bound to defer the marriage. The young knight refused to comply, and the physician, infuriated, pronounced a curse upon his race. The marriage took place; within a week the bride expired, in horrible agony; the young man, after a slight illness, recovered; the curse took effect."
Margaret took the quaint old missal into her hand, and turned to the grisly register of death. Her heart grew cold as she thought of her own sad sisterhood with all those miserable women of the past. Miserable women, but ah! tenfold more miserable men,—helpless victims of their own baleful hearts. She remained silent, with her eyes fixed on the book, abstractly; mechanically, as it were, she turned to another page, and read a familiar orison to the blessed Virgin. Then raising her head, with her deep-blue eyes shining with the cold light of an immense resolve,—a prodigious act of volition,—"Father Herbert," she said, in low, solemn accents, "I revoke the curse, I undo it. I curse it!"
From this moment, nothing would induce her to bestow a moment's thought on salvation by flight. It was too late, she declared. If she was destined to die, she had already imbibed the fatal contagion. But they should see. She cast no discredit on the existence or the potency of the dreadful charm; she simply assumed, with deep self-confidence which filled the old priest with mingled wonder and anguish, that it would vainly expend its mystic force once and forever upon her own devoted, impassioned life. Father Herbert folded his trembling hands resignedly. He had done his duty; the rest was with God. At times, living as he had done for years in dread of the moment which had now arrived, with his whole life darkened by its shadow, it seemed to him among the strange possibilities of nature that this frail and pure young girl might indeed have sprung, at the command of outraged love, to the rescue of the unhappy line to which he had dedicated his manhood. And then at other moments it seemed as if she were joyously casting herself into the dark gulf. At all events, the sense of peril had filled Margaret herself with fresh energy and charm. Paul, if he had not been too enchanted with her feverish gayety and grace to trouble himself about their motive and origin, would have been at loss to explain their sudden morbid intensity. Forthwith, at her request, he announced his engagement to his mother, who put on a very gracious face, and honored Margaret with a sort of official kiss.
"Ah me!" muttered Father Herbert, "and now she thinks she has bound them fast." And later, the next day, when Mrs. De Grey, talking of the matter, avowed that it really did cost her a little to accept as a daughter a girl to whom she had paid a salary,—"A salary, madam!" cried the priest with a bitter laugh; "upon my word, I think it was the least you could do."
Nous verrona," said Mrs. De Grey, composedly.
A week passed by, without ill omens. Paul was in a manly ecstasy of bliss. At moments he was almost bewildered by the fullness with which his love and faith had been requited. Margaret was transfigured, glorified, by the passion which burned in her heart. "Give a plain girl a common girl, a lover," thought Paul, "and she grows pretty, charming. Give a charming girl a lover—" and if Margaret was present, his eloquent eyes uttered the conclusion; if she was absent, his restless steps wandered in search of her. Her beauty within the past ten days seemed to have acquired an unprecedented warmth and richness. Paul went so far as to fancy that her voice had grown more deep and mellow. She looked older; she seemed in an instant to have overleaped a year of her development, and to have arrived at the perfect maturity of her youth. One might have imagined that, instead of the further, she stood just on the hither verge of marriage. Meanwhile Paul grew conscious of he hardly knew what delicate change in his own emotions. The exquisite feeling of pity, the sense of her appealing weakness, her heavenly dependence, which had lent its tender strain to swell the concert of his affections, had died away, and given place to a vague, profound instinct of respect. Margaret was, after all, no such simple body; her nature, too, had its mysteries. In truth, thought Paul, tenderness, gentleness, is its own reward. He had bent to pluck this pallid flower of sunless household growth; he had dipped its slender stem in the living waters of his love, and lo! it had lifted its head, and spread its petals, and brightened into splendid purple and green. This glowing potency of loveliness filled him with a tremor which was almost a foreboding. He longed to possess her; he watched her with covetous eyes; he wished to call her utterly his own.
"Margaret," he said to her, "you fill me with a dreadful delight. You grow more beautiful every day. We must be married immediately, or, at this rate, by our wedding-day, I shall have grown mortally afraid of you. By the soul of my father, I didn't bargain for this! Look at yourself in that glass." And he turned her about to a long mirror; it was in his mother's dressing-room; Mrs De Grey had gone into the adjoining chamber.
Margaret saw herself reflected from head to foot in the glassy depths, and perceived the change in her appearance. Her head rose with a sort of proud serenity from the full curve of her shoulders; her eyes were brilliant, her lips trembled, her bosom rose and fell with all the insolence of her deep devotion. "Blanche Ferrars, of Castle Ferrars," she silently repeated, "Isabel Stirling, Magdalen Scrope,—poor foolish women! You were not women, you were children. It's your fault, Paul," she cried, aloud, "if I look other than I should! Why is there such a love between us?" And then, seeing the young man's face beside her own, she fancied he looked pale. "My Paul," she said, taking his hands, "you're pale. What a face for a happy lover! You're impatient. Well-a-day, sir! It shall be when you please."
The marriage was fixed for the last of September; and the two women immediately began to occupy themselves with the purchase of the bridal garments. Margaret, out of her salary, had saved a sufficient sum to buy a handsome wedding gown; but, for the other articles of her wardrobe, she was obliged to be indebted to the liberality of Mrs. De Grey. She made no scruple, indeed, of expending large sums of money, and, when they were expended, of asking for more. She took an active, violent delight in procuring quantities of the richest stuffs. It seemed to her that, for the time, she had parted with all flimsy dignity and conventional reticence and coyness, as if she had flung away her conscience to be picked up by vulgar, happy, unimperilled women. She gathered her marriage finery together in a sort of fierce defiance of impending calamity. She felt excited to outstrip it, to confound it, to stare it out of countenance.
One day she was crossing the hall, with a piece of stuff just sent from the shop. It was a long morsel of vivid pink satin, and, as she held it, a portion of it fell over her arm to her feet. Father Herbert's door stood ajar: she stopped, and went in.
"Excuse me, reverend sir," said Margaret; "but I thought it a pity not to show you this beautiful bit of satin. Isn't it a lovely pink?—it's almost red,—it's carnation. It's the color of our love,—of my death. Father Herbert," she cried, with a shrill, resounding laugh, "it's my shroud." Don't you think it would be a pretty shroud?—pink satin, and blond-lace, and pearls?"
The old man looked at her with a haggard face. "My daughter," he said, "Paul will have an incomparable wife."
"Most assuredly, if you compare me with those ladies in your prayer-book. Ah! Paul shall have a wife, at least. That's very certain."
"Well," said the old man. "you're braver than I. You frighten me."
"Dear Father Herbert, didn't you once frighten me?"
The old man looked at Margaret with mingled tenderness and horror. "Tell me, child," he said, "in the midst of all this, do you ever pray?"
"God forbid!" cried the poor creature. "I have no heart for prayer."
She had long talks with Paul about their future pleasures, and the happy life they should lead. He declared that he would set their habits to quite another tune, and that the family should no longer be buried in silence and gloom. It was an absurd state of things, and he marvelled that it should ever have come about. They should begin to live like other people, and occupy their proper place in society. They should entertain company, and travel, and go to the play of an evening. Margaret had never seen a play; after their marriage, if she wished, she should see one every week for a year. "Have no fears, my dear," cried Paul, "I don't mean to bury you alive; I'm not digging your grave. If I expected you to be content to live as my poor mother lives, we might as well be married by the funeral service."
When Paul talked with this buoyant energy, looking with a firm, undoubting gaze on the long, blissful future, Margaret drew from his words fortitude and joy, and scorn of all danger. Father Herbert's secret seemed a vision, a fantasy, a dream, until, after a while, she found herself again face to face with the old man, and read in his haggard features that to him, at least, it was a deep reality. Nevertheless, among all her feverish transitions from hope to fear, from exaltation to despair, she never, for a moment, ceased to keep a cunning watch upon her physical sensations, and to lie in wait for morbid symptoms. She wondered that, with this ghastly burden on her consciousness, she had not long since been goaded to insanity, or crushed into utter idiocy. She fancied that, sad as it would have been to rest in ignorance of the mystery in which her life had been involved, it was yet more terrible to know it. During the week after her interview with Father Herbert, she had not slept half an hour of the daily twenty-four; and yet, far from missing her sleep, she felt, as I have attempted to show, intoxicated, electrified, by the unbroken vigilance and tension of her will. But she well knew that this could not last forever. One afternoon, a couple of days after Paul had uttered those brilliant promises, he mounted his horse for a ride. Margaret stood at the gate, watching him regretfully, and, as he galloped away, he kissed her his hand. An hour before tea she came out of her room, and entered the parlor, where Mrs. De Grey had established herself for the evening. A moment later. Father Herbert, who was in the act of lighting his study-lamp, heard a piercing shriek resound through the house.
His heart stood still. "The hour is come," he said. "It would be a pity to miss it." He hurried to the drawing-room together with the servants, also startled by the cry. Margaret lay stretched on the sofa, pale, motionless, panting, with her eyes closed and her hand pressed to her side. Herbert exchanged a rapid glance with Mrs. De Grey, who was bending over the young girl, holding her other hand.
"Let us at least have no scandal," she said, with dignity, and straightway dismissed the servants. Margaret gradually revived, declared that it was nothing,—a, mere sudden pain,—that she felt better, and begged her companions to make no commotion. Mrs. De Grey went to her room, in search of a phial of smelling-salts, leaving Herbert alone with Margaret. He was on his knees on the floor, holding her other hand. She raised herself to a sitting posture.
"I know what you are going to say," she cried, "but its false. Where's Paul?"
"Do you mean to tell him?" asked Herbert.
"Tell him?" and Margaret started to her feet. "If I were to die, I should wring his heart; if I were to tell him I should break it."
She started up, I say; she had heard and recognized her lover's rapid step in the passage. Paul opened the door and came in precipitately, out of breath and deadly pale. Margaret came towards him with her hand still pressed to her side, while Father Herbert mechanically rose from his kneeling posture. "What has happened?" the young man. "You've been ill!"
"Who told you that anything has happened?" said Margaret.
"What is Herbert doing on his knees?"
"I was praying, sir," said Herbert.
"Margaret," repeated Paul, "in Heaven's name, what is the matter?"
"What's the matter with you, Paul? It seems to me that I should ask the question."
De Grey fixed a dark, searching look on the young girl, and then closed his eyes, and grasped at the back of a chair, as if his head were turning. "Ten minutes ago," he said, speaking slowly, "I was riding along by the river-side; suddenly I heard in the air the sound of a distant cry, which I knew to be yours. I turned and galloped. I made three miles in eight minutes."
"A cry, dear Paul? what should I cry about? and to be heard three miles! A pretty compliment to my lungs."
"Well," said the young man, "I suppose, then, it was my fancy. But my horse heard it too; he lifted his ears, and plunged and started."
"It must have been his fancy tool It proves you an excellent rider,—you and your horse feeling as one man!"
"Ah, Margaret, don't trifle!"
"As one horse, then!"
"Well, whatever it may have been, I'm not ashamed to confess that I'm thoroughly shaken. I don't know what has become of my nerves."
"For pity's sake, then, don't stand there shivering and staggering like a man in an ague-fit. Come, sit down on the sofa." She took hold of his arm, and led him to the couch. He, in turn, clasped her arm in his own hand, and drew her down beside him. Father Herbert silently made his exit, unheeded. Outside of the door he met Mrs. De Grey, with her smelling-salts.
"I don't think she needs them now," he said. "She has Paul." And the two adjourned together to the tea-table. When the meal was half finished, Margaret came in with Paul.
"How do you feel, dear?" said Mrs. De Grey.
"He feels much better," said Margaret, hastily.
Mrs. De Grey smiled complacently. "Assuredly," she thought, "my future daughter-on-law has a very pretty way of saying things."
The next day, going into Mrs. De Grey's room, Margaret found Paul and his mother together. The latter's eyes were red, as if she had been weeping; and Paul's face wore an excited look, as if he had been making some painful confession. When Margaret came in, he walked to the window and looked out, without speaking to her. She feigned to have come in search of a piece of needle-work, obtained it, and retired. Nevertheless she felt deeply wounded. What had Paul been doing, saying? Why had he not spoken to her? Why had he turned his back upon her? It was only the evening before, when they were alone in the drawing-room, that he had been so unutterably tender. It was a cruel mystery; she would have no rest until she learned it,—although, in truth, she had little enough as it was. In the afternoon, Paul again ordered his horse, and dressed himself for a ride. She waylaid him as he came down stairs, booted and spurred; and, as his horse was not yet at the door, she made him go with her into the garden.
"Paul," she said, suddenly, "what were you telling your mother this morning? Yes," she continued, trying to smile, but without success, "I confess it,—I'm jealous."
"O my soul!" cried the young man, wearily, putting both his hands to his face.
"Dear Paul," said Margaret, taking his arm, "that's very beautiful, but it's not an answer."
Paul stopped in the path, took the young girl's hands and looked steadfastly into her face, with an expression that was in truth a look of weariness,—of worse than weariness. of despair. "Jealous, you say?"
"Ah, not now!" she cried, pressing his hands.
"It's the first foolish thing I have heard you say."
"Well, it was foolish to be jealous of your mother; but I'm still jealous of your solitude,—of these pleasures in which I have no share.—of your horse,—your long rides."
"You wish me to give up my ride?"
"Dear Paul, where are your wits? To wish it is—to wish it. To say I wish it is to make a fool of myself."
"My wits are with—with something that's forever gone!" And he closed his eyes and contracted his forehead as if in pain. "My youth, my hope,—what shall I call it?—my happiness."
"Ah!" said Margaret, reproachfully, "you have to shut your eyes to say that."
"Nay, what is happiness without youth?"
"Upon my word, one would think I was forty," cried Margaret.
"Well, so long as I'm sixty!"
The young girl perceived that behind these light words there was something very grave. "Paul," she said, "the trouble simply is that you're unwell."
He nodded assent, and with his assent it seemed to her that an unseen hand had smitten the life out of her heart.
"That is what you told your mother?"
He nodded again.
"And what you were unwilling to tell me?"
He blushed deeply. "Naturally," he said.
She dropped his hands and sat down, for very faintness, on a garden bench. Then rising suddenly, "Go, and take your ride," she rejoined. "But, before you go, kiss me once."
And Paul kissed her, and mounted his horse. As she went into the house, she met Father Herbert, who had been watching the young man ride away, from beneath the porch, and who was returning to his study.
"My dear child," said the priest, "Paul is very ill. God grant that, if you manage not to die, it may not be at his expense!"
For all answer, Margaret turned on him, in her passage, a face so cold, ghastly, and agonized, that it seemed a vivid response to his heart-shaking fears. When she reached her room, she sat down on her little bed, and strove to think clearly and deliberately. The old man's words had aroused a deep-sounding echo in the vast spiritual solitudes of her being. She was to find, then, after her long passion, that the curse was absolute, inevitable, eternal. It could be shifted, but not eluded; in spite of the utmost strivings of human agony, it insatiably claimed its victim. Her own strength was exhausted; what was she to do? All her borrowed splendor of brilliancy and bravery suddenly deserted her, and she sat alone, shivering in her weakness. Deluded fool that she was, for a day, for an hour, to have concealed her sorrow from her lover! The greater her burden, the greater should have been her confidence. What neither might endure alone, they might have surely endured together. But she blindly, senselessly, remorselessly drained the life from his being. As she bloomed and prospered, he drooped and languished. While she was living for him, he was dying for her. Execrable, infernal comedy! What would help her now? She thought of suicide, and she thought of flight;—they were about equivalent. If it were certain that by the sudden extinction of her own life she might liberate, exonerate Paul, it would cost her but an instant's delay to plunge a knife into her heart. But who should say that, enfeebled, undermined as he was, the shock of her death might not give him his own quietus? Worse than all was the suspicion that he had begun to dislike her and that a dim perception of her noxious influence had already taken possession of his senses. He was cold and distant. Why else, when he had begun really to feel ill, had he not spoken first to her? She was distasteful, loathsome. Nevertheless, Margaret still grasped, with all the avidity of despair, at the idea that it was still not too late to take him into her counsels, and to reveal to him all the horrors of her secret. Then at least, whatever came, death or freedom, they should meet it together.
Now that the enchantment of her fancied triumph had been taken from her, she felt utterly exhausted and overwhelmed. Her whole organism ached with the desire for sleep and forgetfulness. She closed her eyes, and sank into the very stupor of respose. When she came to her senses, her room was dark. She rose, and went to her window, and saw the stars. Lighting a candle, she found that her little clock indicated nine. She had slept five hours. She hastily dressed herself, and went down stairs. In the drawing-room, by an open window, wrapped in a shawl, with a lighted candle, sat Mrs. De Grey.
"You're happy, my dear," she cried, "to be able to sleep so soundly, when we are all in such a state."
"What state, dear lady?"
"Paul has not come in."
Margaret made no reply; she was listening intently to the distant sound of a horse's steps. She hurried out of the room, to the front door, and across the court-yard to the gate. There, in the dark starlight, she saw a figure advancing, and the rapid ring of hoofs. The poor girl suffered but a moment's suspense. Paul's horse came dashing along the road—riderless. Margaret, with a cry, plunged forward, grasping at his bridle; but he swerved, with a loud neigh, and, scarcely slackening his pace, swept into the enclosure at a lower entrance, where Margaret heard him clattering over the stones on the road to the stable, greeted by shouts and ejaculations from the hostler.
Madly, precipitately, Margaret rushed out into the darkness, along the road, calling upon Paul's name. She had not gone a quarter of a mile, when she heard an answering voice. Repeating her cry, she recognized her lover's accents.
He was upright, leaning against a tree, and apparently uninjured, but with his face gleaming through the darkness like a mask of reproach, white with the phosphorescent dews of death. He had suddenly felt weak and dizzy, and in the effort to keep himself in the saddle had frightened his horse, who had fiercely plunged, and unseated him. He leaned on Margaret's shoulder for support, and spoke with a faltering voice.
"I have been riding," he said, "like a madman. I felt ill when I went out, but without the shadow of a cause. I was determined to work it off by motion and the open air." And he stopped, gasping.
"And you feel better, dearest?" murmured Margaret.
"No, I feel worse. I'm a dead man."
Margaret clasped her lover in her arms with a long, piercing moan, which resoimded through the night.
"I'm yours no longer, dear unhappy soul,—I belong, by I don't know what fatal, inexorable ties, to darkness and death and nothingness. They stifle me. Do you hear my voice?"
"Ah, senseless clod that I am, I have killed you!"
"I believe it's true. But it's strange. What is it, Margaret?—you're enchanted, baleful, fatal!" He spoke barely above a whisper, as if his voice were leaving him; his breath was cold on her cheek, and his arm heavy on her neck.
"Nay," she cried, "in Heaven's name, go on! say something that will kill me."
"Farewell, farewell!" said Paul, collapsing.
Margaret's cry had been, for the startled household she had left behind her, an index to her halting-place. Father Herbert drew near hastily, with servants and lights. They found Margaret sitting by the roadside, with her feet in a ditch, clasping her lover's inanimate head in her arms, and covering it with kisses, wildly moaning. The sense had left her mind as completely as his body, and it was likely to come back to one as little as to the other.
A great many months naturally elapsed before Mrs. De Grey found herself in the humor to allude directly to the immense calamity which had overwhelmed her house; and when she did so, Father Herbert was surprised to find that she still refused to accept the idea of a supernatural pressure upon her son's life, and that she quietly cherished the belief that he had died of the fall from his horse.
"And suppose Margaret had died? Would to Heaven she had!" said the priest.
"Ah, suppose!" said Mrs. De Grey. "Do you make that wish for the sake of your theory?"
"Suppose that Margaret had had a lover,—a passionate lover,—who had offered her his heart before Paul had ever seen her; and then that Paul had come, bearing love and death."
"Well, what then?"
"Which of the three, think you, would have had most cause for sadness?"
"It's always the survivors of a calamity who are to be pitied," said Mrs. De Grey.
"Yes, madam, it's the survivors,—even after fifty years."