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At Last by Marion Harland

Part 2 out of 5

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believer in purgatorial purification? to appease the wrath even of
Him who had wrought her desolation? It must be the judgment of a
retributive Deity upon her idolatrous affection that she was
bearing--her worship of Frederic. Yes, she had loved him; she loved
him now better than she did anything else upon earth--better than
she did anything in Heaven.

In the partial insanity of her woe and despair, she lifted her gray
face and vacant eyes to the vast, empty vault, beyond which dwelt
her Maker afar off, and said the words aloud--spat them at Him
through hard, ashy lips.

"I love him! I love him! You have taken him from me--but I will love
him for all that!"

Heaven--or Fate--her blasphemous mood did not distinguish the one
from the other--was a robber. Her brother was pitiless as the death
that would not answer to her call. Between them she was bereaved.

It was but a touch--the lightest breath of natural feeling that
broke up the hot crust, that shut down the fountain of tears--Rosa's
voice, tuneful and sad as a nightingale's, chanting the border-lays
she loved so well:

"When I gae out at e'en.
Or walk at morning air,
Ilk rustling bush will seem to say
I used to meet thee there.
Then I'll sit down and cry,
And live beneath the tree.
And when a leaf falls in my lap,
I'll oa' it a word from thee."

She had sung it herself to Frederic the night before he left her,
and as she finished the artless ballad, he took her in his arms and
kissed her.

As he would never do again!

"My darling! my darling!" she cried aloud.

Then the grief-drops came in a flood.

CHAPTER V.

CLEAN HANDS.

The servant who summoned Mabel to supper brought down word that she
was not feeling well, and did not wish any.

"Not well! Bless me!" exclaimed Mrs. Sutton, starting up. "Rosa,
love, excuse me for three seconds, please. I must see what is the
matter. I do hope there is no bad news from--" (arrested by the
recollection that there were servants in the room, she substituted
for the name upon her lips)--"in her letters."

"I don't think she's much sick ma'am," said the maid. "She is
a-settin' in the window."

"Where I left her with her letters, an hour and more ago," observed
Rosa. "Don't hurry back if she needs you, Aunt Rachel. I will make
myself at home; shall not mind eating alone for once."

Not withstanding the array of dainties before her, she only nibbled
the edge of a cream biscuit with her little white teeth, and
crumbled the rest of it upon her plate in listlessness or profound
and active reverie, while the hostess was away. She, too, had her
conjectures and her anxieties--a knotty problem to work out, and the
longer she pondered the more confident was she that she had grasped
at least one filament of the clue leading to elucidation.

Mabel had not stirred from her place--sat yet with her brother's
letter in her lap, her hands lying heavily upon it, although her
muslin dress was ghostly in the stream of moonlight flowing across
the chamber. She had wept her eyes dry, and her voice was
monotonous, but unfaltering.

"I am not really sick, aunt, but I have no appetite, and having a
great deal to think of, I preferred staying here to going to the
table," was her answer to Mrs Sutton's inquiries.

"Your hands are cold and lifeless as clay, my child. What is the
matter? It is not like you to be moping up here, alone in the dark."

"Won't you leave me to myself for a while, and keep Rosa
down-stairs?" asked Mabel, more patiently than peevishly. "Before
bed-time I will see you in your room, and we can talk of what has
disturbed me."

"My daughter," murmured the gentle-hearted chaperone, trying to draw
the erect head to her shoulder, as she stood by her niece.

Mabel resisted the kindly force.

"No, no, aunt. I cannot bear that yet. I have just begun to think
connectedly, and petting would unnerve me."

This was strange talk from the frank-hearted child she had reared
from babyhood, and while she desisted from further attempts at
consolation, Aunt Rachel took a very sober visage back to the
supper-room with her, and as little appetite as Rosa had manifested.
The meal was quickly over, and by way of obeying the second part of
Mabel's behest, the innocent diplomatist begged Rosa to go to the
piano.

"I always enjoy your delightful music, my dear. It makes the house
more lively."

"Thank you, dear Mrs. Sutton. I should take pleasure in obliging
you; but if Mabel is out of sorts, I don't believe she will care to
have the house lively to-night," was the amiable rejoinder.
"Moreover, I am dying to finish 'David Copperfield.' Will you allow
me to curl myself up in the big chair here, and read for an hour?"

Mrs. Sutton gave a consent that was almost glad in its alacrity, and
pretended to occupy herself with the newspapers brought by the
evening mail, until she judged that Mabel had had season in which to
compose her thoughts. Then she muttered something about "breakfast,"
"muffins," and "Daphne," caught up her key-basket, and bustled out.

Rosa's book fell from before her face at the sound of the closing
door. The liquid eyes were turbid; her features moved by some
passion mightier far than curiosity or compassion for her friend's
distress.

"I have done nothing--literally nothing, to bring this on!" was the
reflection which brought most calm to her agitated mind. "If it
should be as I think, I am guiltless of treachery. My skirts are
clear. My hands are clean! Yet there have been moments when I could
have dipped them in blood that this end might be attained!"

Too restless to remain quiet, she tossed her book aside and wandered
from side to side of the room, halting frequently to hearken for
Mrs. Sutton's return, or some noise from the conference chamber that
might alleviate her suspense.

"I tried to put her on her guard," she broke forth at length, bent,
it would seem, upon self-justification against an invisible accuser.
"I saw aversion in Winston's eye the day he came home to find the
other here. He would never forgive his slave the presumption of
choosing a husband for herself. Did I not tell her so? Yet this has
caught her like a rabbit in a trap--unprepared for endurance or
resistance. The spiritless baby! Would I give him up, except with
life, if he loved me as he does her?"

It was not a baby's face that was confronting Mrs. Sutton's just
then. It was no weak, spiritless slave who sustained the pelting
shower of her comments, her wonderment and her entreaties that Mabel
would refuse to abide by her brother's decision--her guardian though
he was--and if she would not write to Frederic with her own hand,
empower her aunt to apply to him for an explanation of the
disgraceful mystery.

"We should condemn no man unheard," she argued.

"It is but fair to give him an opportunity of telling his side of
the story."

"Winston's letter will inform him of what and by whom he is
accused," said Mabel. "He will have the opportunity you speak of. I
should not be content with my brother's action, were this not so. I
have been over the whole ground again and again, since sunset.
We--you and I--are powerless. This story is either true or false. If
what we have read really happened, what could arise from our
correspondence with the offender against honor and virtue? It would
but complicate difficulties. If he is unjustly accused, he can prove
it, and put his slanderers to shame without our promptings. Our
interference would be an intimation that he needed our
championship."

"I believe he will clear himself of every stain," returned Mrs.
Sutton earnestly. "This is either a vile plot concocted by some
secret foe, or the Frederic Chilton mentioned here," pushing the
letter away from her on the table, with a gesture of loathing, "is
another person."

"That is very unlikely!"

Mabel leaned her forehead wearily upon her hand, and did not finish
the sentence immediately.

"I will be candid with you, aunt, upon this subject, as I have tried
to be in every other confidence with which I have burdened you.
Frederic Chilton was a student in the law-school, which was also
attended by Winston's correspondent, and at the date specified by
him. I have reason to think there was something
unpleasant--something he wished to conceal from me, and perhaps from
everybody else, connected with his stay there. He referred to it
ambiguously on the last evening of his visit here, as a folly, a
youthful indiscretion. I have the impression, moreover, that a
married woman was mixed up in this trouble, whatever it was--a lady,
some years older than himself, whose husband, a naval officer, was
absent upon a long cruise. This may be the germ of the story related
here, and it may have nothing whatever to do with it."

In saying "here," she pointed to the letter. Both avoided touching
it as it lay between them, the big seal uppermost, and looking more
like bright, fresh blood than ever, in the lamplight.

"My dear, all this proves nothing--absolutely nothing--except that
the shock and overmuch solitary musing have made you morbid and
unreasonable."

Mrs. Sutton assumed a collected air, and delivered herself with the
mien of one who was determined to submit to no trifling, and to
credit no scrap of evidence against her friend which
counter-reasoning could set aside.

"My husband's godson--we must remember he is that, Mabel!--could
never be guilty of the infamous conduct ascribed to this Chilton by
Winston Aylett's anonymous friend. I am accounted a tolerable judge
of character, and I maintain that it is a moral impossibility for my
instincts and experience to be so utterly at fault as these two men
would make you believe. As to the corroboration of your
'impression,' that would be consummate nonsense in the eye of the
law. Let us sift the pros and cons of this affair as rational,
unprejudiced beings should--not jump at conclusions. And I must say,
Mabel"--was the consistent peroration of this address, uttered in a
mildly-aggrieved tone, while the blue eyes began to shine through a
rising fog--"it seems to me very singular--really wounds me--is not
what I looked for in you--that you should rank yourself with my poor
boy's enemies!"

"I, his enemy!" The word was a sharp cry--not loud, but telling of
unfathomed deeps of anguish, from the verge of which the listener
drew back with a shudder. "I would have married him without a single
glance at the past! Let him but say 'it is untrue--all that you
fear and they declare,' and I would disbelieve this tale, instantly
and utterly, though a thousand witnesses swore to the truth of it.
Or, let him be all that they say, I would marry him to-night, if I
had the right to do it. But I promised--and to promise with an
Aylett is to fulfil--that I would be ruled by my guardian's will,
should the investigation, to which Frederic himself did not object,
terminate unfavorably for my hopes, and contrary to his
declaration."

"It was a rash promise, and such are better broken than kept."

"Your Bible, Aunt Rachel--to-night, I cannot call it mine!--commends
him who swears to his own heart and changes not," replied the niece,
with restored steadiness. "It would have been the same had I refused
my consent to Winston's proposal. I am a minor, and who would wait
two years for me?"

"Anybody who loved you, provided your trust in him equalled his in
you," said Mrs. Sutton, slyly.

Mabel's answer was direct.

"You want me to say that I do not believe this tale of Mr. Chilton's
early errors; to brand it as a mistake or fabrication. You insinuate
that, in reserving my sentence until I shall have heard both sides
of it, I show myself unworthy of the love of a true man; betray of
what mean stuff my affection is made. I suppose blind faith is
sublime! But for my part, I had rather be loved in spite of my known
faults, than receive wilfully ignorant worship."

The daring stroke at Mrs. Sutton's hypothesis of the inseparable
union between esteem and affection, excited her into an impolitic
admission.

"My child, you make my blood run cold! You do not mean that you
could love a man for whose character you had no respect!"

"There is a difference between learning to love and continuing to
love," said Mabel, sententiously. "But we have had enough of useless
talk, aunt. In two days more Winston will be here. Until then, let
matters remain as they are. You can tell Rosa as much or as little
as you like of what has happened. She must suspect that something
has gone awry. To-morrow, I will look up this Mr. Jenkyns, and
deliver the messages with which I am charged--likewise consult the
mason about the 'baronial' fireplace," smiling bitterly.

"You never saw another creature so altered as she is," Mrs. Sutton
bewailed to Rosa, in rehearsing the scene. "If this thing should
turn out to be true, she is ruined and heart-broken for life. She
will become a cold, cynical, unfeeling woman--a feminine copy of her
granite brother."

"If!" reiterated Rosa, testily. "There is not one syllable of truth
in it from Alpha to Omega! I know he is your nephew, and that it is
one af the Medo-Persian laws of Ridgeley that the king can do no
wrong; but I would sooner believe that Winston Aylett invented the
slander throughout, than question Fred Chilton's integrity. There is
foul play somewhere, as you will discover in time--or out of it!"

To Mabel, Frederic's spirited champion said never a word of the
event that held their eyes waking until dawn--each motionless as
sleepless lest her bed fellow should discover her real state.

"I have had no share in causing the rupture. I am not called upon to
heal it," meditated she. "In this, the law of self-preservation is
my surest guide."

Her resolve to remain neutral was sharply and unexpectedly tested
the next afternoon.

The two girls went out for a ramble about four o'clock, taking the
beaten foot-path that led through cultivated fields, and between
wooded hills, to a small post-town two miles distant. The day was
sunless, but not chilly, and when they had outwalked the hearing of
the murmur of rural life that pervaded the barnyard and adjacent
"quarters," the silence was oppressive, except when broken by the
whirr of a partridge, the melancholy caw of the crows, scared from
their feast upon the scattered grains knocked from over-ripe ears of
corn during the recent "fodder-pulling," and, as they neared it, by
the fretting of a rapid brook over its stony bottom.

The pretence of social converse had been given up before the friends
cleared the first field beyond the orchard. Rosa's exquisite tact
witheld her from obtruding commonplaces upon the attention of a mind
torn by suspense--distracted between disappointment and outraged
pride, and Mabel had not besought her sympathy in her grievous
strait. They walked on swiftly, the one staring straight forward,
yet seeing nothing; the other, although thoughtful, losing not one
feature of the landscape--the light-gray sky, the encircling forest,
the yellow broom-straw clothing the hill-sides, the crooked fences,
lined with purple brush, golden-rod, black-bearded alder and sumach,
flaming with scarlet berry cones and motley leaves. It was her
principle and habit to seize upon whatever morsels of delight were
dropped in her way, and she had a taste for attractive bits of
scenery, as for melody. There was no reason why the evil estate of
her companion should debar her from quiet enjoyment of the autumn
day. She was sorry that Mabel was suffering. It was unpleasant to
see pain or grief. Smiles were prettier than glum looks. She hoped
she had enough humanity about her to enable her to recognize these
facts. But, in her soul, she despised the girl for her tacit
acquiescence in her brother's decree; contemned her yet more for her
partial credence of the rumor of her lover's unworthiness. It was as
well, taking these things into account, that Mabel was not
communicative with regard to the great change that had befallen her
since this hour yesterday, when she had exultingly proclaimed that
her trust was "founded upon a rock."

"Varium et mutabile semper faemina!" reflected Rosa, who knew that
much Latin--and attracted by the waving of the bright grasses
beneath the waves of the rivulet they were crossing, she stopped to
lean over the railing and poke them aside from the stones with a
chincapin switch she had picked up a little way back.

Mabel did not look around; apparently did not observe that she
walked on alone.

"I dare say she would not miss me for the next mile!" soliloquized
the idle lounger, snatching foam-flakes from their nestling-places
behind the rocks, and watching them as they danced down the stream.

Something, whiter and more regular in shape than they, lay upon the
margin of the brook, partly concealed by a clump of sedge. A letter,
with the address uppermost! Rosa's optics were keen. She easily made
out the direction upon the envelope from where she stood. It was
Frederic Chilton's name in Mrs. Sutton's quaint, old-fashioned
"back-hand" chirography. An hour before, as Rosa now recollected,
she had seen, from her window, a negro man take the path to the
village, arranging some papers in the crown of his tattered straw
hat. He had dropped this, the most important of all, probably in
stooping to drink from his hollowed palms at the spring-stream.
However this might be, there it lay--the warning to the calumniated
lover that his traducers were making clean (or foul) work with his
fair fame in the quarter where he wished to stand at his best;
perhaps citing him to appear and answer the damaging charges in
person before the same tribunal.

"If she would only let me drop him a friendly line asking him, for
her sake, to contradict this horrid slander!" the distraught matron
had sighed, last night, in her recapitulation of the conversation
with her obdurate niece. "But she will not hear of it."

"I hardly think he would like it either," Rosa had rejoined. "It
would hint at distrust on your part or on hers. Mr. Aylett's letter
should be sufficient to elicit the defence you crave."

"You are in the right, perhaps!" But Mrs. Sutton had looked
miserably discontented. "Yet to be frank with you, Rosa, Winston is
not apt to be conciliatory in his measures when he takes it into his
head that the family honor is assailed. I am afraid he has written
haughtily, if not insolently, to poor Frederic."

Rosa had no doubt of this, even while she answered, "Neither
haughtiness nor downright insolence would prevent a man who has so
much at stake as has Mr. Chilton, from taking instant steps to
re-establish himself in the respect of the family he desires to
enter. This is a very delicate matter--take what view of it we may.
Hadn't you better wait a few days before you interfere? Nothing can
be lost--something may be gained by prudent delay."

"And I suppose Winston WOULD be very much displeased at my
officiousness, as he would term it," had been Mrs. sutton's
reluctant concession to her young guest's discreet counsels. "But it
is very hard to remain quiet, and see everything going to
destruction about one!"

She had evidently reconsidered her resolution to let things take
their wrong-headed course, and in virtue of her prerogatives as
match-maker and mender, had thrust her oar into the very muddy
whirlpool boiling about the bark of her darling's happiness.

Rosa wrought out this chain of sequences, with many other links,
stretching far past present exigences and possibilities, ere Mabel's
figure disappeared behind the shoulder of the hill rising beyond the
brook. Should Frederic Chilton receive that letter, in less than a
week--in three days, perhaps, for he was a man prompt to resolve and
to do--he would present himself at Ridgeley to speak in his own
behalf--an event Rosa considered eminently undesirable. Certainly
Mabel's pusillanimity merited no such reward. She had no right to
question the rectitude that one she professed to love, nor her aunt
the right to act as mediator. If Mabel Aylett, with her found sense
and judgment, and her inherent strength of will, would not hold fast
to her faith in her affianced husband, and defy her brother to
sunder them, let her lose that which she prized so lightly.

If the epistle, soaking slowly there in the wet, had been committed
to Rosa's charge, she would have scorned to intercept it; would have
deposited it safely and punctually in the post-office. As it was, if
she left it alone, Frederic would never get it, and Mrs. Sutton
remain unconscious of its fate--unless some other passer-by should
perceive and rescue it from illegibility and dissolution; unless
Mabel should espy it on their return-walk, or, coming back, the next
moment, to seek her truant mate, catch sight of the snowy leaflet of
peace in its snuggery under the sedge.

A startled partridge flew over Rosa's head from the thither rising
ground, and in the belief that he was the harbinger of the approach
she dreaded, she dislodged the envelope from its covert, with a
quick touch of her little wand, and it floated down the stream.

Slowly--all too gradually at first--swinging lazily wound in the
eddies, catching, now against a jutting stone, now entangled by a
blade of grass--Rosa's heart in her throat as she watched it, lest
Mabel's footsteps should be audible upon the rocky path, Mabel's hat
appear above the spur of the hill. Then the channel caught it,
whirled it over and over, faster and faster, and sucked it downward.

Mrs. Sutton was at the tea-table with the girls that evening, when
Johnson, the sable Mercury, showed himself at the door, to inform
his superior that he had "got everything at de sto' she sent him fur
to buy."

"You mailed the letters, Johnson?" said the mild mistress, rather
anxiously.

"All on dem, Mistis!"

"The unconscionable liar!" thought Rosa, virtuously, "he ought to be
flogged! But it is none of my business to contradict him."

She did not say now, "My hands are clean!"

CHAPTER VI.

CRAFT--OR DIPLOMACY!

"YOUR letter notifies me, in general terms, that the answers
returned to your inquiries as to my antecedents and present
reputation are the reverse of satisfactory. You feel constrained,
you add, in view of the information thus obtained, to interdict my
further intercourse with your sister or any other member of your
family. Since I cannot battle with shadows, or refute insinuations
the drift of which I do not in the least comprehend, may I trouble
you to put the allegations to which you refer into a definite and
tangible shape? Let me know who are my accusers, and what are the
iniquities with which they charge me. The worst criminal against
human and divine laws has the right to demand thus much before he is
convicted and sentenced.

"As to your prohibition of my continued correspondence with Miss
Aylett, I shall consider her my promised wife, and write to her
regularly as such, until you have made good your indictment against
me, or until I receive the assurance under her own hand and seal
that my conduct in thus addressing her is obnoxious to herself.

"I have the honor, sir, of signing myself

"Your obedient servant,

"FREDERIC S. CHILTON."

The cool contempt of the reply to his imperative dismissal of
whatever claims the presumptuous adventurer his aunt had encouraged
believed he had upon Mabel's notice or affection, was likely to irk
Winston Aylett as more intemperate language could not. It did more.
It baffled him, for a time. He could, and he meant, to withhold the
lover's letter from his sister's eyes. He could--and upon this also
he was determined--command her, in the masterful manner that
heretofore had never failed to work submission, never to meet,
speak, or write again to the man he almost hated; will her to forget
her childish fancy for his handsome face and glozing arts, and in
the fulness of time, to bestow her in marriage upon a partner of his
own providing. He had no misgivings as to his ability to accomplish
all this, if the blackguard aforesaid could be kept out of her way
until that remedial agent, Time, and lawful authority had a chance
to do their work.

But he was openly defied to prevent communication between the
betrothed pair, unless his injunction had Mabel's endorsement; and,
upon alighting from the stage at the village, on his return to
Ridgeley, he had taken from the post-office, along with the
impertinent missive addressed to himself, one for Mabel,
superscribed by the same hand. From the first, he had no intention
of transferring it to the keeping of the proper owner, It was
forwarded in direct disobedience to his commands, and the writer
should be made to understand the futility of opposition to these.
For several hours, his only purpose respecting it was to enclose it,
unopened, in an envelope directed by himself, and send it back to
the audacious author, by the next mail. He was balked in this
project by no fastidious scruples as to his right thus to dispose of
his ward's property. Nature, or what he assumed was natural
affection, concurred with duty in urging him to hinder an alliance
by which Mabel's happiness would be imperilled and her relatives
scandalized. But when, in the solitude of his study, he vouchsafed a
second reading to Frederic's letter, preparatory to the response he
designed should annihilate his hopes and chastise his impudence, a
doubt of the efficacy of his schemes attacked him for the first
time. "Under her own hand and seal," were terms the explicitness of
which commended them to his grave consideration. His next thought
was to oblige Mabel to indite a formal renunciation of her unworthy
suitor. There were several objections to this measure.

Firstly, he disliked whatever smacked of scenic effect, and women
were apt to get up scenes--hysterics, attitudes, and the like--upon
trivial provocation, He wanted to get the thing over quietly and
soon.

Secondly, he was not very sure that he should find in Mabel the
docile puppet she had appeared to him for so many years of tutelage.
She had matured marvelously of late. Her very manner of meeting him
that afternoon impressed him by its self-possession and freedom from
the emotion that used to gush from eyes and lips, in happy tears,
and broken, delighted greeting at his approach. For aught he knew to
the contrary, she might have accepted his fiat as just, if not
merciful, and not a dream of rebellion been fostered thereby. The
grave tranquillity of her demeanor might arise from the chastening
influences of the mortification she had sustained, and a
consciousness of ill-desert that bred humility. He would fain have
believed all this, but until he broached the subject to her, his
incertitude could not be removed, and in a step so momentous as that
which he meditated, it behooved him to try well the solidity of the
ground beneath him.

Lastly, our blood-prince of the kingdom of Ridgeley was, whether he
confessed it or not, acting under orders.

"Be very tolerant with that poor little deceived sister of yours!"
his fiancee had implored, her diamond eyes bedimmed by
quick-springing damps of commiseration. "Recollect that the
consciousness of wasted love is always harder to bear than what is
commonly known as bereavement. If you find her refractory, be
patient and persuasive, instead of dictatorial. Craft often effects
what overt violence would attempt in vain."

"Craft!" The word struck unpleasantly upon the Virginia lordling's
ear, and he echoed it with a suspicion of a frown upon his brow. "I
am not an adept in chicanery!"

"But you are a born diplomatist!" seductively. "And because I am of
the same credulous sex as our mistaken little darling, you will not
proceed to open warfare with her, even should she be both to resign
her lover? It is the glory of the strong to show charity to the weak
and erring."

For her sake, then, our flattered diplomatist would try the effect
of guile, instead of brutality, upon the helpless girl, the balance
of whose fate was grasped by his shapely hand. For one base second,
the idea of attempting an imitation of his sister's handwriting
flashed through his mind. But he was a gentleman, and forgery is not
a gentlemanly vice, any more than is counterfeiting bank-notes.
Finally, the author of craft--the subtle, refined virtue bepraised
by his bride-elect--the devil--came to his help.

Mabel, like most other girls, had a dainty and fantastic taste in
the matter of letter-paper and envelopes. She used none but French
stationery, stamped with her monogram--a curious device, wrought in
two colors--and at the top of each sheet stood out in bas-relief
the Aylett crest. With these harmless whimsies Frederic was, without
doubt, familiar. If his letter were returned to him, wrapped in a
blank page, taken from her papetiere and within one of her
envelopes, it would not signify so much whose handwriting was upon
the exterior. Papetiere and writing-desk were in Mabel's bed-room,
but she was in the parlor, practising an instrumental duet with
Rosa--a favorite with Miss Dorrance. Winston had brought it south
with him, and asked his sister to learn it forthwith, in just the
accent he used to employ when prescribing what studies she should
pursue at school. There was nothing in his errand that he should be
ashamed of, he reminded himself with impatient severity, as he
traversed the upper hall on tip-toe to the western chamber. He had,
on sundry previous occasions, sought, in the receptacles he was
about to ransack, for sealing-wax, pencils, and the like trifles.
Mabel was too wise a woman not to keep her secrets under lock and
key, and if there were private documents left in his way, he was too
honorable to pry into them.

Shutting the door cautiously, that the snap and blaze might not
betray him, he struck a wax match, warranted to burn a
minute-and-a-half, and raised the lid of the desk. His unseen but
wily coadjutor had guided him cunningly. In fingering a heap of
envelopes in order to find one large enough for his purpose, he
brought to light one addressed to "Mr. Frederic Chilton, Box 910,
Philadelphia, Penn."

Upon the reverse was a small blot that had condemned it in Mabel's
sight, as unfit to be sent to her most valued correspondent, and
which she had not observed before writing the direction. Selecting
another, she had thrown this back carelessly into the desk, meaning
to burn it when it should be convenient, and forgotten all about it.

The livid dints were deep and restless in Winston's nostrils, as
seen by the light of the tiny taper he raised to extinguish, when
his prize was secured. The devil supplied him with another crafty
hint, as he was in the act of folding one edge of Frederic's letter
that it might fit into the new cover. Why not strip off the letter
entirely, that it might seem to have been opened, read, and then
flung back upon the writer's hands with contumely? Half-way measures
were unsafe and foolish. Stratagem, to be efficient, should be not
only deft, but thorough; else it was bungling, not diplomacy. His
hand did not shake in divesting the closely-written sheet of its
wrapping, but in one respect his behavior was in consonance with the
gentlemanly instincts he vaunted as a proof of pure old blood. He
averted his eyes lest he should see a line the lover had penned to
his mistress. The letter slipped smoothly into the quarters prepared
for it--smoothly as Satan's mark usually goes on until his tool has
made his damnation sure.

"Well done?" said Diabolus.

"That was a clever hit!" chimed in his assistant, complacently,
after he had put the sealed envelope into his portfolio for
safe-keeping, and burned the torn one he had removed. "Nobody but an
idiot or a madman would persist in following a girl up after such a
quietus."

He replied to Frederic's note to himself shortly and with disdain,
using the third person throughout, and informing Mr. Chilton with
unmistakable distinctness that Miss Aylett had offered no opposition
whatever to her brother's will in this unfortunate affair. So far as
he--Mr. Aylett--could judge, her views coincided exactly with his
own. Mr. Chilton's letters and presents should be returned to him at
an early day, and thus should be finished the closing chapter of a
volume which ought never to have been begun.

All this done to his mind, he set the door of his room ajar, and
watched for Mabel's passage to hers.

He had not to wait long. The young ladies had fallen into habits of
early retiring of late--a marked change from their olden fashion of
singing and talking out the midnight hour. Himself unseen, Mr.
Aylett scrutinized the two mounting the stairs side by side--Rosa's
dark, mobile face, arch with smiles, while she chattered over a bit
of country gossip she had heard that afternoon from a visitor, and
the weary calm of Mabel's visage, the drooping eyelids, and, when
appealed to directly by her volatile comrade, the measured, not
melancholy cadence of her answer, The girl had had a sore fight, and
won a Pyrrhian victory. She was not vanquished, but she was worsted.
Some men, upon appreciating what this meant, and how her grief had
been wrought, would have had direful visitings of conscience,
surrendered themselves to the mastery of doubts as to the
righteousness and humanity of stringent action such as he had just
consummated. He was not unmoved. He really loved his only sister, as
proud, selfish men love those of their own lineage who have never
disputed their supremacy, and derogated from their importance. He
said something under his breath before he called her, but the curse
was not upon himself.

"The low-bred hound!" he muttered. "This is his doing!"

Mabel halted at the stair-head, the blood suddenly and utterly
forsaking her cheeks when he spoke her name, although his address
was purposely kind, and, he thought, inviting.

"Can you spare me a moment?" he continued, smilingly, to win her
advance. "I will not detain you long. I know you are agonizing to
have your talk out, Miss Rosa."

Rosa laughed, with a saucy retort, and turned into her chamber.

Mabel entered her brother's, and without speaking, took the seat he
offered. She was to be sentenced, and she must reserve her forces to
sustain the pain without a groan.

"You saw Jenkyns--did you not?" began Mr. Aylett, with the manner of
one at peace with himself, and those of his fellow-men whose
existence he chose to acknowledge.

"I did. He made memoranda of your orders, and said all should be
done as you wished."

"I ordered the masons, this evening, to begin the hall-chimney
to-morrow. While the work is going on, you had better occupy some
other bed-room. I shall hurry it forward, day and night, or it will
not be done in season for us when we return from our bridal-tour.
The carpets must be down, and the paper dry by the fifteenth at
farthest. Clara bought your dresses, and offers to have them made,
if you will send her an accurate measurement. You are about her
height, although not so well-proportioned. Your figure is angular,
where hers is round. She is your senior by several years, yet one
might easily mistake her for a girl of twenty, her complexion is so
fresh. Her twenty-five years show themselves in nothing except her
ease of manner, maturity of thought, and elegance of diction."

He would have sneered at this strain in another as hyperbolical and
fatuous. The absurdity of it in his mouth consisted mainly in the
cool arrogance of the assumption that whatever belonged to him was
above adverse criticism, and would be maligned if it were referred
to without appending an encomium. Much of fervor might and did
mingle in his thoughts of her he was to wed, but none warmed his
enumeration of her perfections. He did nothing con amore, unless it
were exalting the dignity and glory of the Aylett name, and
maintaining his right to support their ancient honors.

Mabel did not respond to his gratuitous praise of the fair and
benevolent Clara. While he was talking, he seemed to recede a great
way from her; his tones to ring hollowly upon her hearing, his form
to grow indistinct. Was he playing with her suspense, or could it be
that he--a being with heart and nerves like hers, had no conception
of the rack on which she waa stretched--no suspicion that every one
of his deliberate sentences was a turn of the screw that redoubled
her torture? The Ayletts were a strong-willed race, and she
repressed all sign of suffering save intense pallor; made this less
palpable by screening her eyes from the lamp-light with a paper she
took from the table, and thereby throwing her features into deep
shadow.

"But it is not my intention to trouble you with matters that concern
me alone," he pursued, without varying his intonations. "As I
anticipated, Mr. Chilton declines explaining the ugly story relative
to his eariier career of dissipation and deceit, which I forwarded
to you. He indulges, instead, in a tirade of personal abuse touching
my right to control you, declaring his purpose to pursue you with
letters and attentions until he shall be discarded by yourself. We
will not stay to discuss the gentlemanliness and delicacy of his
behavior in this regard. I merely declare, that, having had a fair
opportunity of honest confession or denial of statements detrimental
to his principles and pursuits, and having shirked both, he has
placed himself outside the pale of respectful consideration. Has he
written to you since his receipt of my letter?"

"No!"

Mabel was staring at a figure in the carpet, on a line with her
feet. Had she regarded her brother never so attentively, she would
have detected no change in his countenance. He did not prepare
questions without also studying how to deliver them.

"I am glad he has the moral decency to forbear carrying out his
threat of persecution."

He could say it with the greater hardihood in the remembrance that
the "persecution" had been attempted.

"I wish he had written!" rejoined Mabel, abruptly, but without
passion. "He was right to protest against accepting his dismissal
from any other than myself."

She had not removed her eyes from the spot on the carpet, or lowered
the paper screen. She looked like a statue and spoke like an
automaton.

Mr. Aylett's nostrils quivered ominously.

"Is it your wish to recommence the correspondence I have ended?"

"You know that I would strike off my right hand sooner than do it.
But if he had written to me, I should have answered his letter, if
it had been only to bid him farewell. Since he has not chosen to do
this, I cannot take the initiative."

If Winston had never entertained a favorable opinion of his own
sagacity prior to hearing this avowal, it would have forced itself
upon him now. How timely was the thought, how felicitous the
accident, that had aided him to ward off the disaster of renewed
intercourse!

Involuntarily his fingers crept nearer to the closed portfolio.

"No good could have come of that!" returned he coldly. "When an
amputation is to be performed, wise people submit to it without
useless preliminaries. The exchange of farewells in this case would
be inexpedient in the highest degree. You would compromise yourself
by continued acknowledgment of this fellow's acquaintance. My will
is that you and the world should forget, as soon as it can be done,
that you ever saw or heard of him. The connection was degrading."

"Don't abuse him, brother! Let the knowledge that we are parted
forever, satisfy your resentment. Since he has not appealed to me
from your verdict, I am left to suppose that, upon second thoughts,
he has resolved to acquiesce in your will. I do not blame him for
the change of purpose." Still impassive in feature and voice, still
not withdrawing her fixed gaze from that one point upon the floor.
"He, too, has pride, and it matches yours. I do not say mine. I
question, sometimes, if I have any."

"If your conjecture be correct, you cannot object to return the
letters you have already received from him," said Winston, pressing
on to the conclusion of a disagreeable business. "Since you are not
likely to add to your stock of these valuables, you do not care to
retain them, I suppose? I believe the rule is total surrender of
souvenirs when a rupture is pronounced hopeless."

"I shall keep them a week longer!"

She assigned no reason for the resolution, and her manner, without
being sullen, aggravated her brother into wrath, the effusion of
which was a withering sneer.

"Your hope in his repentance is creditable to the strength--or
weakness--of woman's love. But have your way. The illustrious record
of his former life is a powerful argument in favor of clemency. In a
week, then!"

He nodded dismissal, wheeled his chair around to the table, dipped a
pen in the standish, and pulled an account-book toward him.

He was surprised and not pleased, nevertheless, that Mabel retired
without other reply than a simple "Good-night," said without temper,
or any evidence of excitement. A month before, a milder sarcasm, the
lightest breath of reproof, would have brought her to his feet in a
paroxysm of tears, to implore pardon for her contumacy, and to
promise obedience for all time to come. She was getting beyond his
control the while she offered no open resistance to his government.
Was sorrowful shame, or her infatuation for the adventurer he cursed
in his heart by his gods, the influence that was petrifying her into
this unlovely caricature of her once bright and affectionate self?

She presented herself, unsummoned, in his study at the expiration of
the period she had designated, a pacquet in her hand, neatly done up
and sealed.

"I will trouble you to direct it," was all she said, as she laid it
before him.

"This is done of your own free will--remember!" he said,
impressively. "In after years, should you be so unreasonable as to
regret it, there must be no misconception on the subject between us.
If you wish, at this, the eleventh hour, to draw back, I shall not
oppose you."

"You will write the address, then, if you please!" was Mabel's
reply, showing him the surface intended for it.

Then she left him.

"A sensible girl, after all! a genuine Aylett, in will and
stoicism!" commented the master of the situation, beginning in his
round, legible characters, the inscription he hoped never to trace
again. "So endeth her first lesson in Cupid's manual!"

He never knew that Mrs. Sutton had bolstered the Aylett will and
stoicism into stanchness at this closing scene. In a fit of
despondency, she had that morning imparted to Mabel the fact that
she had written to Frederic, ten days before, and had no answer,
although she had besought an immediate one.

"I have expected him confidently every day for a week," she
lamented. "I didn't suppose he would stay at Ridgeley, after what
has happened; but there's the hotel in the village, and, as I told
him, he could accomplish more by an hour's talk with you than by
fifty letters. It is very mysterious--his continued silence! He
always appeared so frank and reasonable. Nothing else like it has
ever occurred in my experience--and I have had a great deal, my
dear!"

"I am sorry you wrote, aunt," replied Mabel, sorrowfully dignified.
"Sorry you have subjected yourself to unnecessary mortification. I
am past feeling it for myself. We cannot longer doubt that Mr.
Chilton desires to hold no further communication with any of us."

Within the hour she made up the pacquet and carried it to her
brother.

CHAPTER VII.

WASSAIL.

ALMOST sixteen months had passed since the dewless September
morning, when Mabel had gathered roses in the garden walks, and her
brother's return had shaken the dew with the bloom from her young
heart. It was the evening of Christmas-day, and the tide of wassail,
the blaze of yule, were high at Ridgeley. Without, the fall of snow
that had commenced at sundown, was waxing heavier and the wind
fiercer. In-doors, fires roared and crackled upon every hearth;
there was a stir of busy or merry life in every room. About the
spacious fire-place in the "baronial" hall was a wide semicircle of
young people, and before that in the parlor, a cluster of elders,
whose graver talk was enlivened, from time to time, by the peals of
laughter that tossed into jubilant surf the stream of the juniors'
converse.

Nearest the mantel, on the left wing of the line, sat the three
months' bride, Imogene Barksdale, placid, dove-eyed, and smiling as
of yore, very comely with her expression of satisfied prettiness
nobody called vanity, and bedecked in her "second day's dress" of
azure silk and her bridal ornaments. Her husband hovered on the
outside of the ring, now pulling the floating curls of a girl-cousin
(every third girl in the country was his cousin, once, twice, or
thrice-removed, and none resented the liberties he, as a married
man, was pleased to take), anon whispering in the ear of a bashful
maiden interrogatories as to har latest admirer or rumored
engagement; oftenest leaning upon the back of his wife's chair, a
listener to what was going on, his hand lightly touching her
lace-veiled shoulders, until her head gradually inclined against his
arm. They were a loving couple, and not shy of testifying their
consent to the world.

"They remind me irresistibly of a pair of plump babies sucking at
opposite ends of a stick of sugar candy!" Rosa Tazewell said aside
to the hostess, as the latter paused beside her on her way through
the hall to the parlor.

"The candy is very sweet!" replied Mrs. Aylett, charitably, but
laughing at the conceit--the low, musical laugh that was at once
girlish in its gleefulness, yet perfectly well-bred.

Mr. Aylett heard it from his stand on the parlor-rug, and sent a
quick glance in that direction. It was slow in returning to the
group surrounding him. He had married a beautiful woman--so said
everybody--and a fascinating, as even everybody's wife did not
dispute. In his sight, she was simply and entirely worthy of the
distinction he had bestowed upon her; an adornment to Ridgeley and
his name. From their wedding-day, his deportment toward her had been
the same as it was to-night--attentive, but never officious;
deferential, yet far removed from servility; a manner that, without
approximating uxoriousness, yet impressed the spectator with the
conviction that she was with him first and dearest among women; a
partner of whom, if that were possible, he was more proud than
fond--and of the depth and reality of his affection there could be
no question.

She declined to seat herself in the circle, although warmly
importuned by her guests thus to add brilliancy to their joyous
party, yet remained standing near Rosa, interested and amused by the
running fire of compliment and badinage that went to make up the
hilarious confusion. If the family record had been consulted, the
truth that she had counted her thirty-second summer would have
astonished her husband, with her new neighbors. Apparently she was
not over twenty-five. Her chestnut hair was a marvel for brightness
and profusion, her broad brow smooth and white, her figure, as
Winston had described it to his sister, rounded, even to
voluptuousness, yet supple as it had been at fifteen. In her cheeks,
too, the blushes fluctuated readily and softly, and when she smiled,
her teeth showed like those of a little child in size and purity.
Her voice matched her beauty well, never loud, always melodious,
with a peculiar, gliding, legato movement of the graceful sentences,
for the pleasing effect of which she was indebted partly to Nature,
and much more to Art. She appeared on this evening in a green silk
dress, matronly in shade and general style, but not devoid of
coquettish arrangement in the square corsage, the opening of which
was filled with foam-like puffs of thulle, threatening, when her
bust heaved in mirth or animated speech, to overflow the sheeny
boundaries. A chaplet of ivy-leaves encircled her head, and trailed
upon one shoulder; her bracelets were heavy, chased gold without
gems of any kind; a single diamond glittered--a point of prismatic
light at her throat. Her wedding-ring was her only other ornament.

"Very sweet, I grant you, and very flavorless," returned Rosa. "And
alarmingly apt to turn sour upon the stomach. I had rather be fed
upon pepper lozenges."

"You should have been born in the Spice Islands," said the hostess,
tapping the dark cheek with her fore finger. "But we could not spare
you from our wassail-cup to-night, my dear Lady Pimento!"

She bent slightly, that the flattery might reach no other ear. She
may not have known that Rosa's Creole skin was at a wretched
disadvantage, as seen against the green silk background; but others
noticed it, and thought how few complexions were comparable to the
wearer's. She had the faculty of converting into a foil nearly every
woman who approached her.

"Thank you! So I am pimento, am I?" queried Rosa, pertly. "And each
of us is to personate some condiment--sweet, ardent, or aromatic--in
the exhilarating draught! Which shall Mr. Harrison here be?

"'Cinnamon or ginger, nutmeg or cloves?'"

"That is a line of a college drinking-song!"

The speaker was a young man of eight-and-twenty; who sat between
Rosa and Mabel, and whose attentions to the latter were marked. Of
medium height, with sandy hair and whiskers, high cheek-bones, that
gave a Gaelic cast to his physiognomy; which was remarkable for
nothing in particular when at rest, and followed somewhat tardily
the operations of his mind when he talked, he would probably have
been the least likely person present to rivet a stranger's notice
but for the circumstance that he played shadow to the host's sister
and was Mrs. Aylett's brother. With regard to the feeling
entertained by the former of those ladies for him, there were many
and diverse opinions, but his sister's partiality was unequivocally
exhibited. Of her three brothers, this--the youngest, the least
handsome, and the only bachelor--was her favorite. She took pains to
apprise his fellow-guests of this interesting fact by petting him
openly, and exerting her fullest artifices to bring him out in
becoming colors.

"It is," she answered him now, admiringly. "What a memory you have,
my dear Herbert! Now I am never positive with whom to credit a
quotation. I recollect, since you have spoken, that your famous
quartette-club ussd to render that with much eclat, and how it was
encored at the brilliant private concert you gave in behalf of some
popular charity or other."

Thus encouraged, Mr. Dorrance proceeded to enlarge the fragment:

"Nose, nose, jolly red nose!
Where got you that jolly red nose?
Nutmeg and ginger, cinnamon and cloves,
These gave me this jolly red nose.'

"You did not quote the third line correctly, Miss Tazewell."

"Never having been a college bacchanalian, I am excusable for the
inaccuracy," she retorted. "I did not even know where I picked up
the foolish bit. Having ascertained the origin to be of doubtful
respectability, I shall never use it again."

"My sister has alluded to our quartette-club," pursued Mr. Dorrance,
turning from the caustic beauty to Mabel, without noticing the
impertinent thrust. "It was the most successful thing of the kind I
ever knew of, being composed of thoroughly-trained musicians--
amateurs, of course--and practising nothing but classic music, the
productions of the best masters. There is something both instructive
and elevating in such an association."

"Especially when the theme of their consideration is the 'Jolly Red
Nose,'" interposed the wicked minx at his other elbow.

Two giddy girls tittered, unawed by Mrs. Aylett's proximity and her
brother's owl-like stare at his critic.

"You may not be aware, Miss Tazewell, that the lyric to which you
have reference is celebrated, both for its antiquity, and the
pleasing harmonies that must ever commend it to the taste of the
true lover of music; although I allow that to a disciple of the
modern and more flimsy school of this glorious art, it may seem
puerile and ridiculous," he remarked, in grandiose patronage. Then,
again to Mabel, "There were four of us--as I said--all students.
What is it, Clara?"

"I have dropped my bracelet upon the floor, between you and Miss
Tazewell," stooping to shake out Rosa's full skirts from which the
trinket fell with a clinking sound.

Three gentlemen darted forward to pick it up, but her husband noted
approvingly that while she accepted it graciously from the lucky
finder, and thanked the others for their kindly interest in the fate
of her "bauble," she held out her arm to her brother, that he might
clasp it again in its place. Affable always, winning whomsoever she
chose to admiration of her personal and mental endowments, she never
departed from matronly decorum. The company agreed silently, or in
guarded asides, that she was charming. No tongue--even the most
reckless or venomous--ever lisped the dread word, levity, in
connection with her name.

"Take care, my dear brother! you will pinch me!" those near heard
her say, and she twisted the golden circlet that the clasp might be
uppermost.

Rosa's alert ear caught the hurried murmur which succeeded, and was
muffled, so to speak, by her affectionate smile of gratitude.

"What were you about to say? Will you never learn prudence?"

"The dove has talons, then?" mused the eavesdropper, "But what was
he in danger of revealing?"

If the interdicted revelation had connection, close or remote, with
the famous quartette club, he kept well away from it after this
reminder, beginning, when he resumed his seat, to discourse upon the
comparative excellence of wood and coal fires, of open chimney-
places and stoves.

Mrs. Aylett smiled an engaging and regretful "au revoir" to the
circle, and passed on to look after the comfort and pleasure of her
elder visitors, and Rosa soon discovered that her awakened curiosity
would be in no wise appeased by listening to the steady, pattering
drone of Mr. Dorrance's oration. Oratorical he was to a degree that
excited the secret amusement of the facile Southern youths about
him. With them, the art of light conversation had been a study from
boyhood, the topics suitable for and pleasing to ladies' ears
carefully culled and adroitly handled. To amuse and entertain was
their main object. Erudite dissertations upon science and
literature; abstruse arguments--whatever resembled a moral thesis,
a political, religious, or philosophical lecture met with the sure
ban of ridicule from them, as from the fair whose devoted cavaliers
they were. If they laughed, when it was safe and not impolitic to do
so, at the ponderous elocution of the Northern barrister, they
marvelled exceedingly more at Mabel's indulgence of his attentions.
That a girl, who, in virtue of her snug fortune and attractive face,
her blood and her breeding, might, as they put it, have the "pick of
the county," if she wanted a husband, should lend a willing ear to
the pompous platitudes, the heavy rolling periods of this alien to
her native State--a man without grace of manner or beauty--in their
nomenclature, "a solemn prig," defied all ingenuity of explanation,
was an increasing wonder outlasting the prescribed nine days. He
rode with the ill assurance of one who, accustomed to the sawdust
floor, treadmill round, and enclosing walls of a city riding-school,
was bewildered by the unequal roads and free air of the breezy
country. He talked learnedly of hunting, quoting written authorities
upon this or that point, of whom the unenlightened Virginians had
never heard, much less read; equipped himself for the sport in a
bewildering arsenal of new-fangled guns, game-bags, shot-pouches,
and powder-horns, with numerous belts, diagonal, perpendicular, and
horizontal, and in the field carried his gun a la Winkle; never, by
any happy accident, brought down his bird, but was continually
outraging sporting rules by firing out of time, and flushing coveys
prematurely by unseasonable talking and precipitate strides in
advance of his disgusted companions.

Yet he was not a fool. In the discussion of graver
matters--politics, law, and history--that arose in the smoking-room,
he was not to be put down by more fluent tongues; demolished
sophistry by solid reasoning, impregnable assertions, and an array
of facts that might be prolix, but was always formidable--in short,
sustained fully the character ascribed to him by his brother-in-law,
of a "thoroughly sensible fellow."

"No genius, I allow!" Mr. Aylett would add, in speaking of his
wife's bantling among his compatriots, "but a man whose industry and
sound practical knowledge of every branch of his profession will
make for him the fortune and name genius rarely wins."

With the younger ladies, his society was, it is superfluous to
observe, at the lowest premium civility and native kindliness of
disposition would permit them to declare by the nameless and
innumerable methods in which the dear creatures are proficient. To
Rosa Tazewell he could not be anything better than a target for the
arrows of her satire, or the whetstone, upon the unyielding surface
of which she sharpened them. But she showed her prudential foresight
in never laughing at him when out of his sight, and in Mabel's. At
long ago as the night of Mr. Aylett's wedding-party at Ridgeley, her
sharp eyes had seen, or she fancied they did, that the hum-drum
groomsman was mightily captivated by the daughter of the house, and
she had divined that Mrs. Aylett's clever ruses for throwing the two
together were the outworks of her design for uniting, by a double
bond, the houses of Dorrance and Aylett. She knew, furthermore, that
Herbert Dorrance had travelled with the Ridgeley family for three
weeks in October, and that he had now been domesticated at the
homestead for ten days. Mrs. Aylett's show of fondness for him was
laughable, considering what an uninteresting specimen of masculinity
he was; but the handsome dame was too worldly-wise, too sage a judge
of quid pro quo, to entice him to waste so much of the time he was
addicted to announcing was money to him, for the sake of a good so
intangible as sisterly sentimentality.

Unless there were some substantial and remunerative ulterior object
to be gained by his tarrying in the neighborhood, cunning Rosa
believed that "dear Bertie" would have been packed off to Buffalo,
or whatever outlandish place he lived in, so soon as the bridal
festivities were over, and not showed his straw-colored whiskers
again in Virginia in three years, at least, instead of running down
to the plantation every three months.

"If such an ingredient as the compound, double-distilled essence of
flatness is to be infused into the wassail-cup, it is he who will
supply it!" thought the spicy damsel, with a bewitching shrug of the
plump shoulder nearest him, while engaged in a lively play of words
with a gentleman on her other hand. "What can possess Mabel to
encourage him systematically in her decorous style, passes my powers
of divination. Maybe she means to use him as a poultice for her
bruised heart. In that case, insipidity would be no objection."

Mabel had not the air of one whose heart is bruised or torn. That
she had gained in queenliness within the past year was not evidence
of austerity or the callousness that ensues upon the healing of a
wound. The Ayletts were a stately race, and the few who, while she
was in her teens, had carped at her lack of pride because of her
disposition to choose friends from the walks of life lower than her
own, and criticised as unbecoming the playful familiarity that
caused underlings and plebeians--the publicans and sinners of the
aristocrat's creed--to worship the ground on which she trod--the
censors in the court of etiquette conferred upon her altered
demeanor the patent of their approbation, averring, for the
thousandth time, that good blood would assert itself in the long run
and bring forth the respectable fruits of refinement, self-
appreciation, and condescension. The change had come over her by
perceptible, but not violent, stages of progression, dating--Mrs.
Sutton saw with pain; Rosa, with enforced respect--from the sunset
hour in which she had read her brother's sentence of condemnation
upon her then betrothed, now estranged, lover. After that one
evening, she had not striven to conceal herself and her hurt in
solitude. Neither had she borrowed from desperation a brazen helmet
to hide the forehead the cruel letter had, for a brief space, laid
low in the dust of anguished humiliation.

If a whisper of her disappointment and the attendant incidents crept
through the ranks of her associates, it died away for want of
confirmation in her clear level-lidded eyes, elastic footfall and
the willingness and frequency with which she appeared and played her
part in the various scenes of gayety that made the winter succeeding
her brother's marriage one long to be remembered by the
pleasure-seekers of the vicinity. She had not disdained the
assistance of her sister-in-law's judgment and experience in the
choice of the dresses that were to grace these merry-makings, and,
thanks to her own naturally excellent taste, now tacitly disputed
the palm of elegant attire with that lady. Her Christmas costume,
which, in many others of her age, would have been objected to by
critical fashionists, as old-maidish and grave, yet set off her pale
complexion--none of the Ayletts were rosy after they reached man's
or woman's estate--and heightened her distingue bearing into regal
grace. Yet it was only a heavy black silk, rich and glossy as satin,
cut, as was then the universal rule of evening dress, tolerably low
in the neck, with short sleeves; bunches of pomegranate-blossoms
and buds for breast and shoulder-knots, and among the classic braids
of her dark hair a half-wreath of the same.

She had the valuable gift of sitting still without stiffness, and
not fidgetting with fan, bouquet, or hand-kerchief, as she listened
or talked. Rosa's mercurial temperament betrayed itself, every
instant, in the bird-like turn of her small head, the fluttering or
chafing of her brown fingers, and not unfrequently by an impatient
stamp, or other movement of her foot that exposed fairy toe and
instep. Contemplation of the one rested and refreshed the observer;
of the other, amused and excited him. Mr. Dorrance's phlegmatic
nature found supreme content in dwelling upon the incarnation of
patrician tranquillity at his right hand, and he regarded the
actions of his frisky would-be tormentor very much as a placid,
well-gorged salmon would survey, from his bed of ease upon the
bottom of a stream, the gyrations of a painted dragon fly overhead.

A lull in the geteral conversation--the reaction after a hearty
laugh at a happy repartee--gave others besides Mabel the opportunity
of profiting by his learned remarks.

"But does not that seem to yon a short-sighted policy," he was
urging upon his auditor, with the assistance of a thumb and
forefinger of one hand, joined as upon a pinch of snuff, and tapping
the centre of the other palm; "does not that appear inexcusable
profligacy of extravagance, which fells and consumes whole surface
forests of magnificent trees--virgin growth--(I use the term as it
is usually applied, although, philosophically considered, it is
inaccurate) giants, which centuries will not replace, instead of
seeking beneath the superficial covering of mould, nourishing these,
for the exhaustless riches, carboniferous remains of antediluvian
woods, hidden in the bowels of your mountains, and underlying your
worn-out fields?"

Rosa was shaking with internal laughter--she would give no escape
except through her dancing eyes.

Indeed, Mr. Dorrance's was the only staid countenance there, as
Mabel said, pleasantly, moving her chair beyond the bounds of the
ring, "I, for one, find the combustion of the upper forest growth
too powerful, just at this instant. This is a genuine
Christmas-storm--is it not? Listen to the wind?"

In the stillness enjoined by her gesture, the growl of the blast in
the chimney and in the grove; the groaning, tapping, and creaking of
the tree branches; the pelting sleet and the rattle of casements all
over the house brought to the least imaginative a picture of
out-door desolation and fireside comfort that prolonged the hush of
attention. Tom Barksdale's pretty wife slipped her hand covertly
into his tight grasp, and their smile was of mutual congratulation
that they were brightly and warmly housed and together. Rosa,
preternaturally grave and quiet, lapsed into a profound study of the
mountain of red-hot embers. Several young ladies shuddered audibly,
as well as visibly, and were reassured by a whispered word, or the
slightest conceivable movement of their gallants' chairs nearer
their own.

"I think we have the grandest storms at Ridgeley that visit our
continent," resumed Mabel thoughtfully. "I suppose because the house
stands so high. The wind never sounds to me anywhere else as it does
here on winter nights."

Yielding to the weird attraction of the scene invoked by her fancy,
she arose and walked to the window at the eastern extremity of the
hall, pulling aside the curtain that she might peer into the wild
darkness. The crimson light of the burning logs and the lamp rays
threw a strongly defined shadow of her figure upon the piazza floor,
distinct as that projected by a solar microscope upon a sheeted
wall; sent long, searching rays into the misty fall of the snow,
past the spot from which she had her last glimpse of Frederic
Chilton, so many, many months agone, showing the black outline of
the gate where he had looked back to lift his hat to her.

What was there in the wintry night and thick tempest to recall the
warmth and odor of that moist September morning, the smell of the
dripping roses overhead, the balmy humidity of every breath she
drew? What in her present companion that reminded her of the loving
clasp that had thrilled her heart into palpitation? the earnest
depth of the eyes that held hers during the one sharp, yet sweet
moment of parting--eyes that pledged the fealty of her lover's soul,
and demanded hers then and forever? His conscience might have been
sullied by crimes more heinous than those charged upon him by her
brother and his friends; he might--he HAD--let her go easily, as one
resigns his careless hold upon a paltry, unprized toy; but when her
hand had rested thus in his, and his passionate regards penetrated
her soul, he loved her, alone and entirely! She would fold this
conviction to her torpid heart for a little while before she turned
herself away finally from the memories of that love-summer and
battle-autumn of her existence. If it aroused in the chilled thing
some slight pangs of sentiency, it would do her no hurt to realize
through these that it had once been alive.

She saw a shadow approaching to join itself to hers upon the
whitened floor without, before Mr. Dorrance interrupted her reverie
by words.

"The fury of the tempest you admire proves its paternity," he said,
with a manifest effort at lightness. "It emanates from the vast
magazines of frost, snow, and wintry wind that lie far to the
north-east even of my home, and THAT is in a region you would think
drear and inhospitable after the more clement airs of of your native
State."

"We have very cold weather in Virginia sometimes," returned Mabel,
still scanning the sentinel gate-posts, and the pyramidal
arbor-vitae trees flanking them.

Her gaze was a mournful farewell, but she neglected none of the
amenities of hospitality. She was used to talking commonplaces.

"We feel it all the more, too, on account of the mildness of the
greater part of the winter," she subjoined.

"Allow me!" said the other, looping back the curtain she had until
now held in her hand. "Whereas our systems are braced by a more
uniform temperature to endure the severity of our frosts, and high,
keen blasts."

"I suppose so," assented Mabel, mechanically, and unconscious as
himself that meaning glances were stolen at them from the fireside
circle, while the hum and conversation was continuous and louder,
for the good-natured intent on the speakers' part to afford the
supposed lovers the chance of carrying on their dialogue unheard.

"But our houses are very comfortable--often very beautiful," Mr.
Dorrance persevered, keeping to the scent of his game, as a trained
pointer scours a stubble-field, narrowing his beat at every
circuit; "and the hearts of those who live in them are warm and
constant. It is not always true that

"'The cold in clime are cold in blood;
Their love can scarce deserve the name.

"I have thought sometimes that that feeling is strongest and most
enduring, the demonstration of which is guarded and infrequent, as
the deepest portion of the channel is the most quiet."

If his philosophical and scientific talk were heavy and solid, his
poetry and metaphors were ponderous and labored. Yet Mabel listened
to him now, neither facing nor avoiding him, looking down at her
hands, laid, one above the other, upon the window-sill, the image of
maidenly and courteous attention.

Why should she affect diffidence, or seek to escape what she had
foreseen for weeks, and made no effort to ward off? She had come to
the conclusion in October that Herbert Dorrance would, when the
forms he considered indispensable to regular courtship had been gone
through with, ask her to marry him, and coolly taken her resolution
to accept him. This morning, on the reception of a handsome
Christmas gift from him, and discovering in his actions something
more pointed than his customary punctilious devoirs, and in his
didacticism the outermost of the closing circle of pursuit she had
furthermore concluded that his happy thought was to celebrate the
festal season by his betrothment. She was quite ready for the
declaration, which, she anticipated, would be pompous and formal.
She would have excused him from "doing" the poetical part of it;
but, since it was on the programme, it was not her province to
interfere.

"I am no enthusiast," he next averred,--Rosa would have said, very
unnecessarily--"the tricks of sighing lovers are beyond--or
beneath--my imitation. I could not 'write a sonnet to my mistress'
eyebrow,' or move her to tearful pity by sounding declarations of my
adoration of her peerless charms, and my anguish at the bare
imagination of the possibility that these would ever be another's.
But, so far as the earnest affection and sincere esteem of an honest
man can satisfy the requirements of a good woman's heart, yours
shall be filled, Mabel, if you will be my wife. I have admired you
from the first day of our meeting. For six months I have been truly
attached to you, and seriously meditated this declaration. Your
brother is satisfied with the exhibit I have made of my affairs and
my prospects, and sanctions my addresses. I can maintain you more
than comfortably, and it shall be one of the principal aims of my
life to consult your welfare in all my plans for my own advancement.
I have been settled in the large and flourishing city of Albany
about seven years, and--ignoring the trammels of mock humility, let
me say to you--have, within that period, gained to a flattering
extent the confidence of the most respectable portion of the
community; have built up an excellent and growing business
connection, and secured the entree of the best society there. These
are the pecuniary and social aspects of the alliance I propose for
your consideration. Through my sister, and by means of the intimate
association into which her marriage with your brother has drawn you
and myself, you have been enabled, within the twelvemonth that has
elapsed since our introduction, one to the other, to learn whatever
you wished to know with respect to my personal character, my tastes,
temper, and habits. It has given me heartfelt pleasure to discover
that these are, in the main, analogous to your own. I have built
upon this similarity--or harmony would be the better word--sanguine
hopes of our future happiness, should you see your way clear to
accept my proffered hand, consent to link your future with mine."

"I beg to lay the 'ouse in Walcot Square, the business and myself,
before Miss Summerson, for her acceptance," said magnanimous Mr.
Guppy, thus clinching his declaration that "the image he had
supposed was eradicated from his 'art was NOT eradicated."

It was more in keeping with Rosa's character than Mabel's to
recollect the comic scene in the book they had read together lately,
but the latter did remember it at this instant, and despite the
momentous issues involved in her immediate action, was strongly
tempted to laugh in her wooer's solemn face.

Then--so abrupt and fearful are the transitions from the extremes of
one emotion to another--arose before her another picture. As in a
dissolving view, she beheld herself walking with Frederic Chilton in
the moonlighted alleys of the garden; midsummer flowers blooming to
the right and left, her head drooping, in shy happiness, as the
lily-bell bows to shed its freight of dew; his face glowing with the
ardor of verbal confession of that he had already sought to express
by letter--heard his fervent, pleading murmur, "Mabel! look up, my
darling! and tell me again that you will not send me away beggared
and starving. I cannot yet believe in the reality of my bliss!"

These were the love-words of an "enthusiast"--these---

The vision vanished at the short, hard breath, she drew in
unclasping her locked hands, and lifting her grave, tranquil eyes to
the level of her suitor's.

"I will follow your example in repudiating spurious sentiment, Mr.
Dorrance. I believe you to be a good, true man and that the
attachment you profess for me is sincere. I believe, moreover, that
my chances of securing real peace of mind will be fairer, should I
commit myself to your guardianship, than if I were to surrender my
affections to the keeping of one whose vows were more impassioned,
who, professing to adore me as a divinity, should yet be destitute
of your high moral principle and stainless honor. When I was younger
and more rash in judgment and feeling, I was led into a sad mistake
by the evidence of eye, ear, and a girl's imagination. I ought to
tell you this, if you have not already heard the story. I will not
deceive you into the persuasion that I can ever feel for you, or any
other man, the love, or what I thought was love, I knew in the few
brief weeks of my early betrothal. But you must know how that ended,
and I have no desire to repeat the mad experiment of risking my
earthly all upon one throw of fate. If friendship--if esteem, and
the resolve to show myself a worthy recipient of your generous
confidence--will content you, all else shall be as you wish."

In her determination to be candid, to leave him in no uncertainty as
to her actual sentiments, she had concerted a response but a degree
less stilted than his proposal. She would have been ashamed of it
had he appeared less gratified.

His dull eyes brightened; his face flushed and beamed with unfeigned
delight, and in his transport he said the most natural and graceful
thing that ever escaped him during his wooing.

"I am content! The second love of Mabel Aylett must ever be more to
me than the first of any other woman!"

True, he nearly spoiled all the next minute, by producing from his
pocket a wee velvet case, from which he extracted a valuable diamond
ring, and proceeded, then and there, in the shadow of the
accommodating curtain, to fit it upon her finger. He had foreseen
that she would not be hardly won, and with characteristic providence
had prepared himself for the event.

The blood leaped to Mabel's temples and the fire to her eye, at the
prompt seal set by the practical non-enthusiast upon the contract,
but she bit her lip, and submitted after a second of thought. He
owed his exemption from rebuke to her memory of his latest
utterance. She could not mistake the tone of genuine feeling, and
she overlooked the breach of taste that followed; treasured up the
heart-saying as one of the few souvenirs she cared to preserve of
his courtship.

"If he is content, I need not be miserable," was the consolatory
reflection with which she took upon herself her new and binding
obligations.

CHAPTER VIII.

THE FACE AT THE WINDOW.

MRS. AYLETT was in her best feather that night; the suave
chatelaine, the dutiful consort; the tactful warder of the
interesting pair whose movements she had not ceased to watch from
the moment they took their places with the party about the
fire-place in the hall until she, alone of all the company, saw
Herbert Dorrance draw the diamond signet from its receptacle, and
the sparkle of the jewel as it slipped to its abiding-place upon
Mabel's finger.

Lest something unusual in their look or behavior should excite the
suspicions of their companions, make them the focus of inquisitive
observation and whispered remark, the diplomate passed again into
the hall, sweeping along in advance of them when they deserted their
curtained recess, and would have joined the rest of the company.

"Are we to have no dancing this evening?" she said, in hospitable
solicitude. "It wants an hour yet of supper-time. The exercise will
do you all good, particularly the young ladies, who have not stirred
beyond the piazzas to-day. I have been waiting for an invitation to
play for you, but my desire for your welfare has overcome native
humility. Will you accept my services as your musician?"

The suggestion was acceded to by acclamation, and while one
gentleman led her to the grand piano which stood between the front
windows of the drawing-room, and another opened a music-book which
she named, a set was quickly formed in the long apartment, the
soberer portion of the crowd ranging themselves along the walls as
lookers-on.

Mrs. Aylett was a proficient in dance-music. She never volunteered
to perform that which she was not conscious of doing well. She had
occasionally taken the floor for a single quadrille, to oblige a
favored guest--always a middle-aged or elderly gentleman--or moved
through a cotillion with ease and spirit as partner to her husband,
but she declined dancing, as a rule; was altogether indifferent to
the amusement, while she delighted to oblige her friends by playing
for them whenever and as long as they required her aid. Without
saying, in so many words, that she disapproved of the waltz for
unmarried ladies, and frowned upon promiscuous dancing for matrons,
she yet managed to regulate the social code of the neighborhood in
both these respects, was imitated and quoted by the most discreet of
chaperones and belles.

Mr. Dorrance was Mabel's partner; Rosa stood up with Randolph
Harrison, a gay youth, who was her latest attache; Tom Barksdale led
out a blushing, yet sprightly school-girl, and Imogene was his
vis-a-vis supported by an ancient admirer, who had comforted himself
for her preference for another man by falling in love with a
prettier woman. The room was decorated with garlands of running
cedar--a vine known in higher latitudes as "ground-pine," and which
carpeted acres of the Ridgeley woods. The vases on the mantel were
filled with holly, and other gayly colored berry boughs, while
roses, lemon and orange blossoms, mignonette and violets from the
conservatory were set about on tables and brackets, blending fresher
and more wholesome odors with those of the Parisian extracts wafted
from the ladies' dresses and handkerchiefs.

Mr. Aylett had--accidentally, it would seem--his wife understood
that the action was premeditated--stationed himself at an angle to
the piano that allowed him a fair view of her, and did not grudge
the merriest bachelor there his share of enjoyment, while he could
keep furtive watch upon the changeful countenance, the Sappho-like
head, and the delicate hands which one could have thought made the
music, rather than did the obedient keys they touched. The wedded
lovers had taste and pride in equal proportions, and a parade of
their satisfaction in one another for the edification or amusement
of indifferent spectators would have been revolting to both, but the
ray that sped from half-averted eyes, from time to time, and was
returned by a kindling glance, also shot sidelong beneath dropped
lashes, said more to each other than would a quarto volume of
stereotyped protestations and caresses, such as Tom Barksdale dealt
out profusely to his beauteous Imogene. Clearly, neither Mr. nor
Mrs. Winston Aylett was fond of sugar-candy.

Mabel's faith in the sincerity of her sister-in-law's agreeable
sayings and ways was not invariable nor absolute. She liked her
after a certain fashion; got along swimmingly with her, the amazed
public decided "SO much better than could have been expected, and
than was customary with relations by marriage, and not by descent;"
yet her more upright nature and different training helped her to
detect the petty artifices with which Clara cajoled the unwary,
moulded the plastic at her will. But she had never questioned the
reality of her love for Winston. As a wife, her deportment was
exemplary, her devotion too freely and consistently rendered to have
its spring in policy or affectation. She gloried in her handsome,
courtly lord, and in his attachment for herself. Whether she would
have espied the same causes for loving exultation in him, had he
been a poor clergyman or merchant's clerk, was an irrelevant
consideration. The master of Ridgeley was not to be contemplated
apart from the possessions and dignities that were his inalienable
pedestal. Clara Dorrance was a clever woman, and she had given these
due weight in accepting his hand; and they may have had their
influence in moving her to unceasing, yet unobtrusive endeavor to
make herself still more necessary to his happiness, to strengthen
her hold upon him by every means an affectionate and beloved wife
has at her command. She had done well for herself--she was thinking
while he concluded as silently within himself that the slight
pensiveness tempering the expressive face was its loveliest dress.

She--beautiful and penniless, ambitious, and a devotee of
pleasure--yet dependent for food and clothing upon her mother's
life-interest in an estate, not one penny of which would revert to
her children at her decease; without kindred and without society in
the elegant suburb they had inhabited for four or five years, might
have been elated at a less brilliant match than that she had made.
The "best people" of the aforesaid suburb were exclusive; slow to
form intimacies with their unaccredited neighbors, and very hasty in
breaking them at the faintest whiff of a doubtful or tainted
reputation. And of the second best the Dorrances had kept themselves
clear. Having met and captivated her wealthy lover on a rarely
fortunate summer jaunt, made in company with her eldest brother, his
wife, and two relatives of the last-named, Clara did not repel him
or disgust the best people of Roxbury by indiscreet raptures over,
or exhibition of, her prize.

"I feel with you an invincible repugnance to throwing open our
hearts to the inspection of the unsympathizing world, at the most
sacred moment of our lives," she said, in stating her preference for
a quiet morning-wedding, a family breakfast, and instant departure
upon their bridal-trip. "If I begin to invite my friends and
neighbors, our cottage--lawn and garden included--would not contain
them, and after all were asked whom I could rememher, as many more
would be mortally offended at being forgotten."

The bridegroom gladly acquiescing, with a compliment to her womanly
delicacy, the ceremony was performed in the presence of the bride's
nearest relatives; an elegant repast was served, at which the
Dorrance plate made an imposing show, and Clara turned her back upon
the scenes and reminiscences of her past life to commence the world
anew.

Yes, she had done very well for herself--how wonderfully well she
knew better than did any one else, and at this date she had fresh
cause for self-gratulation. Through her, Herbert, her favorite
brother, was likely to form an alliance which would be a timely and
substantial stepping-stone to his aggrandizement and wealth. There
were more reasons why she should hold her head higher--why the blood
should clothe her cheek with a richer carmine, and a smile encircle
the mouth, as one swift glance took in the spacious, luxurious room,
thronged with well-dressed aristocrats, her husband the stateliest,
most honored of them all, yet her fond thrall; the splendid apparel
in which his wealth had bedecked her, the queen of the scene--more
reasons, I say, for the ineffable thrill of pleasure that coursed, a
rapid, intoxicating stream, through her veins, than grateful
affection for the author of all these goods. With a Sybarite's dread
of pain and loneliness, she seldom trusted herself to look at the
dark curtain in the background, against which her latter-day glories
shone the more dazzlingly. But to-night she felt safe upon her
throne--sat, the lady of kingdoms, sultana in the realm of her
spouse's heart and in his domain, and could stare full upon the
past--could measure, without shuddering, the height of her actual
and assumed estate above--

Mr. Aylett stepped forward in haste and concern at the deadly pallor
that overspread her face--the look of horror, fear, loathing, before
which smile and brightness fled, blasted into wretchedness. The
revellers stopped in their giddy measure at the discordant jangle,
preluding a dead silence.

Mabel, chancing in the evolutions of the set to be nearest the
window, and noting the direction of the fainting woman's eyes, was
quick enough to see a shadow flit across the yellcw square of light
upon the snowy floor of the portico--a man's shape, as it appeared
to her, crouching and slinking out of view into the darkness.

"She saw something, or somebody, through the window, and was
frightened," she said, in a low voice, checking Tom Barksdale and
another gentleman, who would have pressed with the inconsiderate
crowd toward the senseless figure Mr. Aylett had laid upon the sofa.
"Will you see what it was?"

The request cleared the room directly of all the men of the
assembly, with the exception of Winston and Dr. Ritchie, a young
physician, who was superintending the administration of restoratives
to Mrs. Aylett.

She was reviving rapidly when the search party gave in their report.
There were fresh tracks upon the piazza, and these they had traced
to the back of the house, losing them there in the drifting snow,
the wind blowing like a hurricane, and ploughing what had fallen and
what was descending into constantly changing heaps. But the
watch-dogs had been unchained, and four of the negro men detailed as
sentinels, the gentlemen engaging to make the round of the premises
again before bed-time.

The effect of this communication was the reverse of tranquillizing
upon the patient. The wild, terrified look in her eye resembled the
unreasoning fear of lunacy as she seized her husband's arm.

"Indeed, indeed they must not. It is not right or safe to make such
a serious matter of my foolish nervousness. I am not sure there was
any one there! It was probably an optical delusion. I was plunged in
a reverie, thinking of happy, peaceful, lovely things"--with the
sickly feint of a meaning smile into his face--"and, happening to
look at the window, I fancied that I saw"--with all her self-command
her voice failed here, and she put her hand before her eyes for a
moment before she could go on--"I thought I saw--SOMETHING! It may
have been a human face--it may have been the shadow of the curtains,
or the reflection of the lights upon the glass; but it startled me,
appearing so abruptly. Please say no more about it. If it was a
living creature, it must have been one of the servants, tempted by
curiosity to peep at the dancers."

"It will prove to be a costly indulgence to him, if I can discover
who the rascal was," said Mr. Aylett, decisively. "I would not have
had you so startled for the worth of all the lazy hounds on the
premises."

His wife laid her hand upon his.

"It is Christmas night, my love, and the poor fellow is excusable.
He showed excellent taste. It was a very pretty scene. I shall not
soon forgive myself for throwing it into such 'admired disorder.'
Miss Scott"--[to a musical spinster]--"may I tax your politeness so
far as to ask you to take my seat at the piano? I must go to my room
for a few minutes," raising her finger smilingly to her displaced
ivy wreath. "If you would testify your tolerance of my folly, please
go on with your amusement. I shall be encouraged to return when I
hear the music."

Her collected, urbane self once more, she took her husband's arm,
and passed through the opening ranks of her friends, bowing to this
side and that, with apologetic banter and graceful words of
regret--still very pale, but changed in no other respect.

"A singular episode in an evening's entertainment," said Mr.
Dorrance, leading Mabel to her stand in the re-forming set. "I never
knew Clara to succumb before to any type of syncope or asphyxia. She
is a woman of remarkable nerve and courage. And, by the way, how
preposterous is the common use of the word 'nervous.' The ablest
lexicographers define it as 'strong, well-strung, full of nerve,'
whereas, in ordinary parlance, it has come to signify the very
opposite of these. When I speak of a nervous speaker or writer, for
example, what do I mean?"

"One who imbibes unwholesomely large quantities of strong green tea,
and sees hobgoblins peering at her through the window-panes!" said
Rosa, sarcastically artless, tripping by in season to overhear this
clause of his small-talk.

Mabel's imperturbable good-breeding prevented embarrassment or
resentment at the interruption. At heart, she was vexed that Rosa
should omit no opportunity of shooting privily and audaciously at
her practical admirer, but to betray her appreciation of the
impertinence would be to subject herself to imputations of
sensitiveness on his account.

"I saw the hobgoblin without the aid of green tea," she rejoined.
"There was really some one upon the porch, but why the apparition
should scare Clara out of her wits, I cannot divine. The negro is an
incurable Paul Pry, and, next to dancing a Christmas jig himself, is
the pleasure of seeing others do it."

Mrs. Aylett verified her brother's encomium upon her nerve by
reappearing in the saloon by the time another set was over, and just
before the announcement of supper, radiant and self-possessed,
prepared to do double social duty to atone for the fright she had
caused, and the temporary damp her swoon had cast over the
festivities.

The revel went joyously forward--Christmas-games and incantations,
the dexterous introduction, by a jocose old gentleman, of a
mistletoe-bough into the festoons draping the chandelier, and divers
other tricks, all of which were taken in excellent part by the
victims thereof, and vociferously applauded by the spectators. The
great hall-clock had rung out twelve strokes, and two or three
methodical seniors were beginning to whisper to one another their
intention to take French leave of the indefatigable juniors and seek
their couches, when a continued tumult arose from the yard--barking
and shouts, and voices in angry or eager dispute.

Unmindful of the nipping air, the ladies flew to the windows and
raised them, while the gentlemen, in a body, rushed out upon the
porch, many to the lawn--the scene of the disturbance.

"They have caught him!"

"There are several of them--a gang of thieves, no doubt!"

"No! I see but one! They are bringing him to the house!" were
morsels of information passed over the shoulders of the foremost
rank of inquisitive fair ones to the rear, but none were able to
answer the returning inquiries.

"Who is it?"

"What does he look like like?"

"Does he offer any resistance?"

"Do you suppose he is a burglar, or only a common vagrant?"

"I thought the Ridgeley grounds were never infested by prowling
beggars, or other vagabonds," said a lady to Mrs. Aylett, who
prudently remained near the fire, even then shivering with the cold,
and casting uneasy looks at the windows.

"Mr. Aylett is a model to his brother magistrates in his treatment
of such nuisances," remarked another "His name is a terror to
strollers, whether they be organ-grinders, pedlers, or
incendiaries."

Mrs. Aylett, excessively pale, applied her vinaigrette to her nose,
and trembled yet more violently.

"I believe he is very strict," she assented. "But I am really afraid
those ladies will take cold! The snow-air is piercing. And they
are--most of them--heated with dancing. Cannot we prevail upon them
to close the windows, now that the mysterious prowler is secured? We
shall hear all about him when the gentlemen return, and they will
not stay out of doors longer than is necessary."

They began to pour back into the room, while she was speaking,
laughing, and talking, all together shaking the snow-powder from
their hair and hands, and anathematizing the cold and their thin
boots. The particulars of the midnight disturbance were quickly
disseminated. The ebon sentinels had, directed by the barking of
their canine associates, discovered, under a holly hedge on one side
of the yard, a man lying upon the earth, and almost buried in the
snow he seemed not to have strength to throw off. He was either
drunk or so nearly frozen as to be incapable of answering coherently
their demands as to what was his name and what his business upon the
premises. The interrogations of the gentlemen and the ungentle
shakings administered by his captors elicited nothing but groans and
muttered oaths. He could not, or would not, walk without support,
and to leave him where he was, or to turn him adrift into the public
road, would be certain death. Therefore Mr. Aylett had ordered him
to be confined for the night in a garret room. In the morning he
might be examined to more purpose.

"But he ought to have a fire, and something hot and nourishing to
drink!" exclaimed Mrs. Button, upon hearing the story. "He will
freeze in that barn of a place--poor wretch!"

"I imagine he has no need of additional stimulants," said Mrs.
Aylett, dryly, again resorting to her smelling-bottle. "From what
the gentlemen say, I judge that he had laid in a supply of caloric
sufficient to last through the night. And the first use he would
make of fire would be to burn the house over our heads. His lodgings
are certainly more comfortable than those selected by himself. There
is little danger of his finding fault with them. What manner of
looking creature is he?"

"An unkempt vagabond!" rejoined Randolph Harrison, rubbing his blue
fingers before the fire. "His clothes are ragged, and frozen stiff.
I suppose he has been out in the storm ever since it set in. There
were icicles upon his beard and hair, his hat having fallen off. It
is a miracle he did not freeze to death long ago. It is a bitter
night."

"Did you say he was an old man?" inquired the hostess languidly,
from the depths of her easy chair.

"He is not a young one, for his hair is grizzled. But we will form
ourselves into a court of inquiry in the morning, with Mr. Aylett as
presiding officer--have in the nocturnal wanderer, and hear what
account he can give of himself. Who knows what romantic history we
may hear--one that may become a Christmas legend in after years?"

"You will get nothing more sensational than the confessions of a
hen-roost robber, I suspect," said Mrs. Aylett, more wearily than
was consistent with her role of attentive hostess.

Her husband noticed the tokens of exhaustion, and interposed to
spare her further exertion.

"Our friends will excuse you if you retire without delay, Clara. You
still feel the effects of your agitation and faintness."

This was the signal for a general dispersion of the ladies--the
gentlemen, or most of them, adjourning to the smoking-room.

Since the late extraordinary influx of visitors, Mabel had shared
her aunt's chamber, but, instead of seeking this now, she went
straight from the parlor to the supper-room, where she found, as she
had expected, Mrs. Sutton in the height of business, directing the
setting of the breakfast-table, clearing away the debris of the
evening feast, and counting the silver with unusual care, lest a
stray fork or spoon had, by some hocus-pocus known to the class,
been slipped into the pocket of the supposititious burglar.

"Aunt," began Mabel, drawing her aside, "that poor wretch up-stairs
must be cared for. It is the height of cruelty to lock him up in a
fireless room, without provisions or dry clothing. If he should die,
would we be guiltless?"

Mrs. Sutton's benevolent physiognomy was perplexed.

"Didn't I say as much in the other room, before everybody, my dear?
And didn't SHE put me down with one of her magisterial sentences?
She is mistress here--not you or I. Besides, Winston has the key of
that east garret in his pocket, and I would not be the one to ask
him for it, since he has had his wife's opinion upon the subject of
humanity to prisoners."

"I shall not trouble him with my petition. I discovered by accident,
when I was a child, that the key of the north room would open that
door. If I order, upon my own responsibility, that a cup of hot
coffee, and some bread and meat be taken up to him, you will not
deny them to me, I suppose?"

"Certainly not, my child! but I dare not send a servant with them.
Winston's orders were positive--they all tell me--that not a soul
should attempt to hold communication with him. And what he says he
means."

"Then," replied Winston's sister, with a spark of his spirit, "I
will take the waiter up myself. I cannot sleep with this horror
hanging over me--the fear lest, through my neglect or cowardice, a
fellow-being--whose only offence against society, so far as we
knows is his dropping down in a faint or stupor under a hedge on the
Ridgeley plantation--should lose his life."

"Your feelings are only what I should expect from you, my love; but
think twice before you go up-stairs yourself! It would be considered
an outrageous impropriety, were it found out."

"Less outrageous than to let a stranger perish for want of such
attention as one would vouchsafe to a stray dog?" questioned Mabel,
with a queer smile. "Roger! pour me out a bowl of coffee at once.
Put it on a waiter with a plate of bread and butter--or stay!
oysters will be more warming and nourishing. I am very sure that
Daphne is keeping a saucepanful hot for her supper and yours.
Hurry!"

The waiter, whose wife was the cook, ducked his head with a grin
confirmatory of his young mistress' shrewd suspicion, and vanished
to obey her orders, never dreaming but she wanted the edibles for
her private consumption. He enjoyed late and hot suppers, and why
not she? Thanks to this persuasion, the coffee was strong, clear,
and boiling, the oysters done to a turn, and smoking from the
saucepan.

Taking the tray from him, with a gracious "Thank you! This is just
as it should be," Mabel negatived his offer to carry it to her room,
and started up-stairs.

Mrs. Sutton followed with a lighted candle.

"Winston or no Winston, you shall not face that desperado alone,"
she said, obstinately. "There is no telling what he may do--murder
you, perhaps, or at least knock you down in order to escape. Winston
talks as if he were the captain of the forty thieves."'

"He is pretty well hors de combat now, at any rate," smiled Mabel,
but allowing her aunt to precede her with the light to the upper
floor. "And should he offer violence--scalding coffee may defend me
as effectually as Morgiana's boiling oil routed the gang. MY captain
had to be carried up-stairs by four servants, who left him upon a
pile of old mattresses in one corner of the room. Here we are!"

They were in a wide hall at the top of the house, the unceiled
rafters above their heads, carpetless boards beneath their feet.
Mabel set her waiter upon a worm-eaten, iron-bound chest, and went
further down the passage to get the key of the north room. Her light
footstep stirred dismal echoes in the dark corners; the wind
screamed through every crack and keyhole, like a legion of piping
devils; rumbled lugubriously over the steep roof. The one candle
flickering in the draught showed Mabel's white bust and arms, like
those of a phantom, beaming through a cloud of blackness, when she
stooped to try the key in the lock of the prison-chamber.

After fitting it, she knocked before she turned it in the rusty
wards--again, and more loudly--then spoke, putting her lips close to
the key-hole:

"We are friends, and have brought you supper. Can we come in?"

There was no answer, and with a beating heart she unlocked the door,
pushed it ajar, and motioned to Aunt Rachel to hold her candle up,
that she might gain a view of the interior.

The wan, uncertain rays revealed the heap of mattresses, and upon
them what looked like a mass of rough, wet clothing, without sound
or motion.

"He is pretending to be asleep! Take care!" whispered Mrs. Sutton,
trying to restrain Mabel as she pressed by her into the room.

"He is dead, I fear!" was the low answer.

Forgetful of her nephew's prohibition and her recent fears, the good
widow entered, and leaned anxiously over the stranger's form. A
tall, gaunt man, clad in threadbare garments, which hung loosely
upon the shrunken breast and arms, black hair and beard, mottled
with white, ragged, and unshorn, and dank from exposure to the snow
and sleet; a chalky-white face, with closed and sunken eyes,
sharpened nose, and prominent cheek-bones--this was what they beheld
as the candle flamed up steadily in the comparatively still air of

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