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At Last by Marion Harland

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CHAPTER XIII.

JULIUS LENNOX.

"You are puttin' your eyes out, workin' so stiddy, honey, and it's
gettin' dark."

Mabel aroused herself from her intent attitude, and looked at the
window. There was a brassy glimmer in the cloudy west; the rest of
the sky was covered by thick vapors.

"The days are still very short," she said, folding her work, and
becoming aware that her eyes ached from long and close study of the
intricate pattern.

It was Mammy Phillis who had interrupted her reverie, and she now
laid an armful of seasoned hickory wood upon the hearth, and set
herself about mending the fire, taking up the ashes which had
accumulated since morning, putting the charred sticks together, and
collecting the embers into a compact bed.

"We're goin' to have fallin' weather 'fore long," she observed,
oracularly. "The wind has changed since dinner, and when the wind
whirls about on a sudden, we upon this ridge is the fust to find it
out. I must see that them lazy chil'len, Lena and Lizy, fills your
wood-box to-night with dry wood; I'd be loth to have you ketch cold
while you are here."

"You are very good, Mammy, but why do you trouble yourself to attend
to my fire? You should have sent up Lena with that great load of
logs."

"I ain't easy without I see to you myself, at least once a day. It
'minds me of the good ole times to wait upon you. O, Lord! how
long?" shaking her tartan turban with a portentous groan, her chin
almost scraping the hearth, as she stooped to blow into the crater
of fiery coals.

Mabel was too well versed in the customs of the race and class to
take alarm at the mysterious invocation. She watched the old woman's
movements in a sort of pensive amusement at the recollection of an
incident of her childhood, brought vividly to her mind by the
servant's air and exclamation.

She was playing in the yard one day, when "Mammy" emerged from her
cottage-door, and came toward her, with a batch of sweet cakes she
had just baked for her nursling.

In crossing the gravel walk leading to the "house," she struck her
toe against the brick facing of this, and the cakes flew in all
directions.

"Good Lord! my poor toe and my poor chile's cakes!" was her vehement
interjection; and as she bent to gather up the cookies, she grunted
out the same adjuration, coupled with "my poor ole back!"--a
negress' stock subject of complaint, let her be but twenty years old
and as strong as an ox.

"Mammy!" said the privileged child, reprovingly, "I thought you were
too good a Christian to break the commandments in that way. You
shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain."

"Gracious! Sugar-pie! how you talk! Ef I don't call 'pon Him in time
of trouble, who can I ask to help me?" was the confident reply.

With no thought of any more formidable cause of outcry than a cramp
in the much-quoted spine, Mabel dreamed on sketchily and indolently,
enjoying the sight of the once-familiar process of building a
wood-fire, until the yellow serpents of flame crept, red-tongued
through the interstices of the lower logs, and the larger and upper
began to sing the low, drowsy tune, more suggestive of home-cheer
and fireside comfort than the shrill, monotonous chirp of the famous
cricket on the hearth. The pipe-clayed bricks on which the andirons
rested were next swept clean; the hearth-brush hung up on its nail,
and the architect of the edifice stepped back with a satisfied nod.

"I have often wished for a glimpse of one of your beautiful fires,
Mammy, since I have been in Albany," said Mabel, kindly. "Our rooms
and halls are all heated by furnaces. An open fireplace would be a
novelty to Northerners, and such a roaring, blazing pile of hard
wood as that, be considered at unpardonable extravagance."

"Humph! I never did have no 'pinion of them people." Phillis tossed
her turban and cocked her prominent chin. "It's all make money, and
save! save! If I was 'lowed to go with you, I'll be bound I'd see
you have sech things as you've been 'customed to. The new folks,
them what comed from nothin' and nowhar, and made every dollar they
can call their own with their own hands, don't know how to feel for
and look after real ladies."

"You are wrong about that, if you mean that I have not every comfort
I could ask. My house is warm in the bitterest weather, and far more
handsomely furnished than this. And I have many kind friends. I like
the Northern people, and so would you, if you knew them well."

"They send dreadful poor samples down this way, then," muttered
Phillis, significantly. "And, some as pertends to be somebody is
nobody, or wuss, ef the truth was known. Don't talk to me 'bout 'em,
Miss Mabel, darling! 'Twas a mighty black day for us when one on 'em
fust laid eyes upon Mars' Winston. You've hearn, ain't you, that my
house is to be tore down, and I'm to go into the quarters 'long with
the field hands and sich like common trash? So long as our skins is
all the same color, some folks can't see no difference in us."

"I had not heard it. I am sorry."

Mabel spoke earnestly, for "Mammy's house," a neat frame cottage a
story-and-a-half high, embowered in locust-trees, and with a
thrifty, although aged garden--honeysuckle clambering all over the
front, was to her one of the dearest pictures of her early days. She
could see herself, now--the motherless babe whom Aunt Rachel and
Mammy had never let feel her orphanage--sitting on the door-step,
bedecking her doll with the odorous pink-and-white blossoms in
summer time, and in autumn with the light-red berries.

"Why is that done?" she asked.

"I spiles the prospect, honey!" fiercely--ironical. "Northern folks
has tender eyes, and I hurts 'em--me and my poor little house what
ole marster built for me when Mars' Winston was a baby, and your
blessed ma couldn't be easy 'thout I was near her--WE spiles the
prospect! So, it must be knocked down and carted away for rubbish to
build pig-pens, I 'spose, and me sent off to live 'mong low-lived
niggers, sech as I've always held myself above. She ain't never put
it into Mars' Winston's head to cut down the trees that shets off
the "prospect" of the colored people's burying-ground from her
winder. There's some things she'd as lief not see. I oughtn't to
mind this so much, I know, for I ain't got long for to stay here
nohow, but I did hope to die in my nest!" sobbing behind her apron.

"I am very sorry--more grieved than you can think!" repeated Mabel.
"If I could help you in any way, I would. But I cannot!"

"Bless your heart! Don't I know that, dear! Here, you ain't got no
more power nor me. But I WAS a-thinkin' that maybe you wouldn't
think me too old for a nuss when you come to want one, and could
manage to take me with you when you went home. I'se a heap of wear
in me yit, and there ain't nothing 'bout babies I don't understand."

Mabel colored painfully.

"If I had my way"--she began--then altered her plan of reply. "I
could not enter into such an arrangement without consulting Mr.
Dorrance, Mammy, and I am afraid he would not think as favorably of
it as you and I do. He has been brought up with different ideas, you
see."

"Um-HUM!"

An interjection capable of as many and as varied meanings in the
mouth of a colored woman of her stamp as was little Jean Baptiste's
"altro!" It signified now--"I comprehend a great deal more than you
want me to perceive--you poor, downtrodden angel!"

"Um-HUM. I always did say he was his sister's own brother--for all
they don't look a bit alike. What's born into a man never comes
out!"

"Mr. Dorrance is my husband, Mammy! I shall not let you speak
disrespectfully of him. He does what he believes to be right and
just," returned Mabel, sternly.

"I ain't a-goin' to arger that with you, my sugar-plum! You're
right to stand up for him. I beg your pardon ef I've seemed sassy or
hurt your feelin's. And I dar' say, there mayn't be nothin' wuss
'bout him nor his outside. And that don't matter so much, ef
people's insides is clean and straight in the sight of the Lord. But
HER outside is all that's decent about her, ef you'll listen to
me--"

"You are forgetting yourself again!" said Mabel, unable to suppress
a smile. "Mrs. Aylett is your mistress--"

The woman's queer behavior arrested the remonstrance. Stepping on
tiptoe to the door she locked it, and approached her young mistress
with an ostentatious attempt at treading lightly, shaking her head
and pursing up her mouth in token of secrecy, while she fumbled in
her bosom for something that seemed hard to get at. Drawing it forth
at last she laid it in Mabel's lap--a small leather wallet, glossy
with use, tattered at the corners, and tied up with a bit of dirty
twine.

"What is this, and what am I to do with it?"

Mabel shrank from touching it, so foul and generally disreputable
was its appearance.

"Keep both your ears open, dearie, and I'll tell you all I know!"

And with infinite prolixity and numerous digressions she recounted
how, in removing the sodden clothing of the unknown man who had been
picked up on the lawn on that memorable stormy Chistmas night, more
than a year before, this had slipped from an inner breast-pocket of
the coat, "right into her hand." Not caring to disturb the doctor's
examination of his patient, or to tempt the cupidity of her
fellow-servants by starting the notion that there might be other
valuables hidden in the articles they handled so carelessly, she had
pocketed it, unobserved by them, guessing that it would be of
service at the inquest. Her purpose of producing it then was,
according to her showing, reversed by Mrs. Aylett's stolen visit to
the chamber and minute inspection of garments she would not have
touched unless urged to the disagreeable task by some mighty
consideration of duty, self-interest, or fear.

"'Then,' thinks I"--Phillis stated the various steps of her
reasoning--"'you wouldn't take the trouble to pull over them nasty,
muddy close, 'thout you expected to get some good out on 'em, or was
afeard of somethin' or 'nother fallin' into somebody else's hands.'
Whichsomever this mought be,'twasn't my business to be gittin' up a
row and a to-do before the crowner and all them gentlemen. 'Least
said soonest mended,' says I to myself, and keeps mum about the
whole thing--what I'd got, and what I'd seen. But when I come to
think it all over arterward, I was skeered for true at what I'd
done, and for fear Mars' Winston wouldn't like it. What reason could
I give him for hidin' of the pocketbook, ef I give it up to him? Ef
I tole all the truth, SHE'D be mad as a March hare, and like as not
face me down that all I had said was a dream or a lie, or that I was
drunk that night and couldn't see straight. I'd hearn her tell too
many fibs with a smooth tongue and a sweet smile not to be sure of
that! So, all I should git for my care of the repertation of my
fam'ly would be her ill-will, and to be 'cused by other people of
stealin', and for the rest of my days she'd do all she could to
spite me. For I'm sure as I stand here, Miss Mabel, that she knew,
or thought she knew, somethin' 'bout that poor, despisable wretch
that died up in the garret. What else brought him a-spyin' 'round
here, and what was there to make her faint when she ketched sight of
him a-lookin' in at her through the winder? and what COULD a sent
her upstars when everybody else was asleep, fur to haul his close
about, and poke them fine white fingers of hern into his pockets,
and pull his WHISKERY face over to the light so's to see it better?
Depend 'pon it, there's a bad story at the bottom of this somewhere.
I've hearn of many a sich that came of gentlemens' marrying
forringers what nobody knowed anything about. Anyhow, I want you to
take keer of this 'ere pocketbook. Ef I was to die all of a suddent,
and 'twas found 'mong my things, some mischief mought be hatched out
on it. It's safer in your hands nor it is in mine. Now, I'll jest
light your lamp, and you can 'xamine it, and pitch it into the fire,
ef you like, when you're through."

In a cooler moment Mabel would have hesitated to obey the advice of
an ignorant, prejudiced person, her inferior in station and
intelligence. But in the whirl of astonishment, incredulity, and
speculation created by the tale she had heard, she untied the string
which formed the primitive fastening of the worn wallet, and
unclosed it.

The main compartment contained four tickets, issued by as many
different pawnbrokers, testifying that such and such articles had
been deposited with them for and in consideration of moneys advanced
by them to Thomas Lindsay; a liquor-seller's score against William
Jones--unpaid; and a tavern bill, in which brandy and water, whiskey
and mint-juleps, were the principal items charged against Edmund
Jackson. This last was the only paper which bore the indorsement
"Rec'd payment," and this circumstance had, probably, led to its
preservation. The adjoining division of the wallet was sewed up with
stout black thread and Mabel had to resort to her scissors before
she could get at its contents. These were a couple of worn
envelopes, crumpled and dog-eared, and stained with liquor or salt
water, but still bearing the address, in a feminine hand, of
"Lieutenant Julius Lennox, U. S. N." In addition to this, one was
directed to Havana, Cuba; the other to Calcutta, in care, of a
mercantile or banking-house at each place. A third cover bore the
superscription, "CERTIFICATE," in bold characters.

The negress' watchful eyes dilated with greedy expectancy at Mrs.
Dorrance's ghastly face when this last had been examind, but she was
foiled if she hoped for any valuable addition to her store of
information, or anything resembling elucidation of her pet mystery.

"It will take me some time to read all these," remarked Mabel, still
scanning the half-sheet she held. "You had better not wait, Mammy.
They are safe with me. No one else shall see them, and no harm can
come to you through them."

She promised mechanically what she supposed would soonest buy for
her privacy and needed quiet, and gave no heed to the manifest
disappointment of her visitor.

When she was at last alone, Mrs. Dorrance relocked the door, and
bent close to the lamp, as if more light upon the surface of the
document would tend to clear up the terrible secret thus strangely
committed to her discretion and mercy. The paper was a certificate,
drawn up in regular form, and signed by a clergyman, whose address
was appended below, in a different hand writing--of a marriage
between Julius Lennox and Clara Louise Dorrance.

"Her very name!" repeated the whitening lips. "I remember asking her
once what the 'L' in her signature stood for."

But while she said it, there was a look in the reader's eye that
bespoke inability or reluctance to grapple with the revelation
threatened by the discovery.

"The letters may tell me more!" she added, in the same frightened
whisper, refolding the certificate.

They did--for they were in the long, sloping chirography of her
sister-in-law, and signed "Your ever-fond, but lonely wife." Each
contained, moreover, allusions to "Ellis," to "Clermont," to
"Julia," and to "Herbert"--all family names in the Dorrance
connection; spoke gratefully of her parents' kindness to his "poor
Louise" in the absence of "her beloved Julius;" and was liberally
spiced with passionate protestations of her inconsolableness and
yearnings for his return. Both were dated ten years back, and the
paper was yellow with time, besides being creased and thumbed as by
many readings.

"What am I to do?" thought Mabel, sinking into her chair, trembling
all over with terror and incertitude.

If there were one sentiment in Winston Aylett's heart that equalled
his haughtiness, it was love for his wife. But could it be that he
had totally forgotten pride and his habitual caution in the
selection of the woman who was to be the partner of his home,
fortune, and reputation--possibly the mother of children who were to
perpetuate the noble name he bore? By what miracle of unrighteous
craft, what subornation of witnesses, what concealments, what
barefaced and unscrupulous falsehoods had this adventuress been
imposed upon him as unmarried, when the evidence of her former
wedlock was held by a low stroller--a drunken wretch who might
betray it in an unguarded or insane hour, and who, judging from his
exterior, would not be averse to publishing or selling the
information if he could make more money by doing this than by
preserving the secret. And how came he by these papers?

Confused, partly by his numerous aliases, more by incapacity to
conceive of such depth and complication of horror as were revealed
by the idea, the perplexed thinker did not, for a while, admit to
herself the possibility that the nameless vagabond may have been
Clara's living husband, instead of a mercenary villain who had
secured surreptitiously the proofs of a marriage she wished the
world to forget. Having learned that she had wedded, a second time,
in her maiden name, and that her antecedents were unsuspected in her
present home, the thought of extorting a bribe to continued silence,
from the wealthy lady of Ridgeley, would have occurred to any common
rascal with more audacity than principle. It was but a spark--the
merest point of light that showed her the verge of the precipice
toward which one link after another of the chain of circumstantial
evidence was dragging her.

Groping dizzily among her recollections of that Christmas night,
there gleamed luridly upon her the vision of Mrs. Aylett's strange
smile, as she said, "It may be that his wife, if she were cognizant
of his condition, would not lift a finger or take a step to save his
life, or to prolong it for an hour!"

Then, in response to Mabel's indignant reply--the momentary passion
darting from her hitherto languorous orbs, and vibrating in her
accents, in adding--"There are women in whose hearts the monument
to departed affection is a hatred that can never die."

If this man were a stranger, from whom she had nothing to fear, why
her extraordinary agitation at seeing him, even imperfectly, through
the window? She must have known him well to recognize him in the
darkness and at that fleeting glimpse. Perhaps she had believed him
dead, until then! This would account for her clandestine visit to
his chamber, to which Mrs. Sutton and her niece had gone, without
effort at concealment; explain the rigid examination of his clothing
ensuing upon her scrutiny of his features.

"I must be mad!" Mabel said, here, pressing her hand to her head.
"There does not live the woman, however wicked and hypocritical, who
could sit at ease in the midst of ill-gotten luxury, on an inclement
night, and talk smilingly of other things, if she suspected that one
she had known, much less loved, lay dying in wretchedness and
solitude so near her."

The vagrant was some evil-disposed spy, whose person Clara knew, and
whose intentions she had reason to dread were unfriendly. Had she
dared--for she was daring--to attempt this nefarious plot against
the fair fame and happiness of an honorable gentleman, her family
would not have become her accomplices. They could not have blinded
themselves to the perils of the enterprise, the extreme
probabilities of detection, the consequences of Winston's anger.
Herbert, at least, would have forbidden the unlawful deceit. When
his sister was wedded to Winston, he believed that her first husband
was no longer in the land of the living--as she must also have done.

"For he is a good--an upright man!" thought the wife. "But he was
privy to the fact of her previous marriage! Why have I never heard
of it? He has invariably spoken of Clara as having lived single in
her mother's house up to the date of her union with my brother."

She could not but remember, likewise, that there was a certain tone
about the Dorrance connection she had never quite comprehended or
liked--a reticence with respect to details of family history, while
they were voluble upon generalities, over-fond of lauding one
another's exploits, virtues, and accomplishments; referring in
wonderful pride to "our beloved father," and extolling "our precious
mother," who, by the way, was so little in request among the
children, that she had, since Clara's marriage, occupied apartments
in a second-rate boarding-house in Boston. Mabel, when convinced of
the futility of her hope of having Aunt Rachel with her, had
proposed to offer Mrs. Dorrance a house in the commodious mansion of
her youngest son; but Herbert, with no show of gratification at what
he must have known was a sacrifice of her inclinations, had coolly
reasoned down the suggestion. The whole tribe--if she excepted her
husband, and perhaps Clara--had, to her perception, a tinge of
Bohemianism, although all were in comfortable circumstances, and
lived showily. Mabel had often chided herself for uncharitable
judgment and groundless prejudice, in admitting these impressions of
her relatives-in-law; but they returned upon her in this twilight
reverie with the force of convictions she was, each moment, less
able to combat. What darker secret lay back of the concealment her
rectitude of principle and sense of justice declared to be
unjustifiable? and might not this concerted and persistent reserve
imply others yet more culpable?

It showed her correct estimate of her brother's character, that she
never for a second accused him of connivance in the deceit practised
upon his relations and neighbors. He would not have scrupled to wed
a widow, knowing and acknowledging her to be such. Nothing--not
love, tenfold more ardent and irrational than that he felt for his
siren wife--could have wrought upon him to introduce to the world,
as Mrs. Aylett of Ridgeley, one who had been before married, and was
ashamed, for any cause whatever, to avow this. The blemish left by
the acrid breath of common scandal upon a woman's fame was to him
ineffaceable by any process yet discovered by pitying man or angels.
The maligned one may not have erred from the straitest road of
virtue and discretion, but she had been "talked about," and was no
consort for him. In his State and caste, private marriages were
things disallowed, and but one shade more respectable than liasons
that did not pretend to the sanctity of wedlock. What would he say
when the contents of this dingy pocket-book were spread before him?
Ought his sister to do this?

COULD she? He had not earned compassionate consideration from her by
any act of gentleness and forbearance. He had handled the
lopping-knife without ruth, and let the gaping wounds bleed as long
as the bitter ichor would ooze from her heart. She had learned
hardness and self-control from the lesson, but not vindictiveness.
Now that the power was hers to visit upon his haughty spirit
something of the humiliation and distress he had not spared her;
that it was her turn to harangue upon mesalliances and love-matches,
and want of circumspect investigation into early records before
committing one's self to a contract of marriage--she recoiled at
the thought; felt, in her exceeding pity for the trustful husband, a
stirring of the love she had herself once borne him in the days when
the changed homestead was her world, and its master a king among
men.

And yet--and yet--was it the truest friendship--the most prudent
course to prolong the ignorance which left him liable at any moment
to be shocked into the perpetration of some desperate deed by the
discovery, through some other channel, of his wife's perfidy, and
the abominable snare that bad been woven about him!

CHAPTER XIV.

"BORN DEAD."

MABEL was still turning the vexed question of right and expediency
over in her fast-heating brain, the next evening, as she sat in the
parlor, and feigned to hearken to the diligent duett-practising
going on at the piano, her husband and Mrs. Aylett being the
performers.

Mrs. Sutton had gone home that afternoon, engaging to return for a
longer sojourn in the course of a month. Mr. Aylett read his
newspaper at one side of the centre table, and his sister employed
her fingers and eyes at the other with a trifle of fancy-work---an
antimacassar she was crocheting for her hostess. Her industrious or
fidgetty habits were chronic and inveterate, and people, in
remarking upon them, did not reflect that this species of
restlessness is in itself a disease, seldom analyzed, more seldom
cured. There are few students or physicians of human nature, in this
world of superficial observers, who go deep enough into the springs
of man's action to distinguish the external symptoms of heart-cancer
from ossification, or to learn ihe difference between satiety and
atrophy. A night of nervous sleeplessness, a day of irresolution and
dread, had aggravated almost beyond her control the restlessness
which in Mabel was the unerring indication of unhealthiness of mind
and body. To sit still was impracticable; to talk connectedly and
easily would soon be as difficult. She was glad to see Aunt Rachel
go--immeasurably relieved when a musical evening was proposed by the
brother and sister, seconding the motion with alacrity that called
forth a pleased smile from the one, and a look of surprised
inquisitiveness from the other.

"You have grown more fond of instrumental music," said Mrs. Aylett,
half interrogatively. "You used always to prefer vocal."

"Try me and see what an appreciative listener I am," rejoined Mabel,
with a sickly smile, and the concert commenced.

Overmuch thought upon the revelation of the preceding day had
begotten in her, fears of the imminence of the dangers to Winston's
peace of mind--a persuasion that the birds of the air and the
restless air itself might bear to him the news she still withheld.
Mammy had averred, upon her cross-examination, that "not a living
soul had ever seen the wallet" since it fell from the dying man's
pocket--an affirmation Mabel could not decide whether to believe or
discredit. If she could but be certain that the secret was all hers!

She trembled guiltily when her brother folded his last paper, and
sauntered around to the back of her chair, leaning upon it, while he
affected to be interested in her work, and the too-ready scarlet
blood pulsed now hotly in her cheeks with each moment of his mute
observation.

"I heard a piece of news to-day," he said, presently, in his most
even tone; but Mabel's start upon her seat was almost a leap, while
her fingers moved faster and more irregularly.

"I suspect, from your unsettled demeanor this evening, that it
reached you before it did me," continued he. "I can attribute your
badly suppressed pertubation to no other cause. Mrs. Sutton is such
an indefatigable gossip, that this item could hardly have passed her
by. Has she told you that Rosa Tazewell is shortly to become Mrs.
Chilton?"

"She has."

He thought she was nerving herself to a simulation of hardihood, and
the long-indulged habit of censorship was strong upon him.

"I had trusted, until to-day, Mabel, that you had conquered that
disgraceful weakness," he resumed, yet more pitilessly.

Domination was one of his besetting sins. He never saw a helpless or
cowering thing without feeling the inclination to set his foot upon
it, and the least show of resistance in such, piqued him into
despotism.

"I was aware that it was not dead when you married a man worth a
thousand such scoundrels as that fellow in Philadelphia. I believed
that the sentiment was powerful in impelling you to that marriage,
and that this irrevocable measure would be an antidote to the evil.
It was a wise course, and I commended you for pursuing it. But I am
too well read in your countenance and moods not to see that there is
something far amiss with you. You have been playing a part for
twenty-four hours, and you have played it wretchedly. Your nervous
flutters and laugh, your sudden changes of complexion, and the
incoherence of your language, would betray you to the least
penetrating observer. I caution you to be on your guard lest your
husband should take just offence at all this. The need of
dissimulation is the evidence that something is radically wrong in
your moral nature, and is derogatory to your lawful partner. I am
ashamed to remind you of the golden maxim of wedded life--that
without perfect and mutual confidence there can be no substantial
happiness. Does Dorrance know of your escapade at the Springs?"

"If you refer to my engagement to Mr. Chilton, I told him of it
before our marriage."

"I rejoice to hear it--am pleased at this one proof of good sense
and right feeling," in lofty patronage. "You owed him no less. You
have, without doubt been informed long since how I obtained the most
important proof against that villain?"

"I have not heard Mr. Chilton's name in a year until yesterday,"
said Mabel, the scarlet spots ceasing to flicker, and her voice hard
as was his own.

Unable to interpret her sudden steadiness of demeanor and accent,
Winston leaped to the irritating conclusion that she was sullen, and
meditated a defiant retreat from this untimely usurpation of his
olden authority.

"It was injudicious--miserably ill-judged in Dorrance not to
acquaint you with this. I have always feared lest his indulgence
might not be the most salutary method of repressing your self-will
and pride of opinion. You, more than any other woman I know, require
the tight rein of vigilant discipline. I intimated as much to
Dorrance when he asked my consent to your engagement. But this is
his lookout, not mine. What I began to say was that, in MY opinion,
he would have acted more sensibly had he not encouraged your
squeamish repugnance to talking of your early fault and its
mortifying consequences."

"Fortunately for me, my husband is a man of feeling and delicacy!"
Mabel was goaded to boast. "I said to him, the evening of our
betrothal, that the subject you have chosen to revive to-night was
painful to me, and he has respected the reluctance you condemn."

"He would have overcome it more quickly and thoroughly had he
informed you that he had had the honor of horse-whipping your
ci-devant betrothed!" sneered Winston, with white dinted nostrils.
"That he was the author of the letter, a portion of which I copied
for your perusal, when I announced the dissolution of your
provisional engagement--the main agent, in effect, of the rupture,
since but for him I should have had much difficulty in proving what
I had believed from the beginning--that the rascal ought to be shot
for presuming to think of you in any other light than as the merest
acquaintance. And he should never have been that, had I been with
you that unlucky summer."

"We have been over that ground so often, Winston, that both of us
should be tolerably familiar with it," rejoined Mabel, decidedly. "I
prefer that, instead of reviewing the circumstances of what you term
my 'early fault,' you should show me the evidence of your singular
assertion respecting Mr. Dorrance's agency in a matter in which he
could not at that time have had the slightest personal interest. Or,
shall I ask him? It is an enigma to me."

Without other answer than a contemptuous laugh, Winston left the
room, unnoticed by the musicians. But before she could form a
conjecture as to the meaning of his abrupt movement, he was back
with a letter in his hand.

"Documentary testimony!" he said, shortly, passing it to her. "I
should have forwarded it entire, instead of transcribing an extract,
but for Clara's fear lest yon should be led thereby to dislike her
brother before you had ever seen him. I take it there is no danger
of prejudicing you against him now!"

The letter was from Herbert Dorrance, and began thus:

"Mr. Aylett:

"Dear Sir,--Your favor of the 15th, enclosed in one from my sister,
reached me this morning."

Then followed the expose of Frederic Chilton's misdeeds, which
Winston had transferred to his own epistle to Mabel, as the leading
argument in his refusal to sanction her engagement.

Mabel read it through without flinching; then turned over to the
first page and put her finger upon a paragraph.

"Who was the lady here mentioned?"

Mr. Aylett shrugged his fine shoulders.

"I have never interested myself to inquire. Beyond the statement of
your friend's rascality, the story was nothing to me."

"Herbert!"

The ringing call--sharp and clear--checked the pianists in the
middle of a bar.

"Step here a moment, if you please!"

The novelty of the imperative tone and the glitter of his wife's
eyes moved Mr. Dorrance to more prompt compliance than he would have
adjudged to be dignified and husbandly in the case of another man.

Mabel held out the letter at his approach, still pointing to the
passage she had asked her brother to explain.

"To whom does this refer? Who was the relative whose husband was a
naval officer?"

Herbert Dorrance's constitutional phlegm was a valuable ally in the
very contracted quarters into which this question drove him, but his
sister was his deliverer. Affecting forgetfulness of the letter and
its contents, he glanced down one page, Mrs. Aylett leaning upon his
arm, and reading with him.

"I don't think you need mind telling the name, here and at this late
day, Herbert," she said, seriously and slowly, "provided Mabel will
never repeat the story when it can do harm. Have you never heard any
of us speak of poor Ellen Lester, my mother's niece, who died
several years before your marriage?" accosting her sister-in-law,
with a face so devoid of aught resembling cowardly or guilty fears,
that Mabel's brain, tried and shaken, tottered into disbelief at her
own wild surmises.

"Not that I remember!"

"Is that so? Yet it might easily have been. She accompanied her
husband upon his last voyage, and the ship was never heard of again.
Her parents are dead, too, so there are few to cherish her memory.
She was a school-fellow of mine, and Herbert loved her as a sister."

Mabel was gazing fixedly at her husband's stolid countenance and
averted eyes, and made no rejoinder until the silent intensity of
her regards compelled him to look up. Reading distrust and alarm in
these, he shook off his sister's warning hold.

"When you wish to catechise me upon family matters, Mabel, it is my
wish that you should do it in private," he said, roughly. "Then you
shall learn all that it concerns you to know. There are subjects
into which only prurient curiosity cares to pry."

"I beg your pardon!" answered Mabel, quietly. "I have but to say, in
self-defence, that I did not ask to see the letter."

"It is a matter of profound indifference to me whether you did or
not," was the reply. "For aught that I know or cared, you may have
read it a year and a half ago. I retract nothing that is set down
there. Clara, shall we go on with our music?"

Glancing around stealthily at the finale of the (sic) he saw that
Mabel's chair was vacant, and Mr. Aylett was reading composedly
beneath the lamp.

Clara made the same discovery at the same moment, and came forward
laughing to her husband.

"What had you been saying to our dear, excitable Mabel, that
challenged the introduction of that unfortunate document?"

"Told her of Frederic Chilton's intended marriage!" curtly, and
without laying aside his volume.

"Preposterous!"

"I agree with you--but it is the truth."

Herbert stood apart glowing at the fire.

"You must have approached the subject unskilfully," urged the
peacemaker. "These old sores are oest left alone."

"It is best for married woman to have none," retorted Winston,
doggedly.

"She does not persist in doubting his unworthiness, does she?"
queried the wife, aside, but not so cautiously that her brother did
not hear her.

He wheeled about suddenly.

"She SHALL believe it, or call me a liar to my face!" he uttered,
angrily. "I will put a stop to this sentimental folly!"

"You are late in beginning your reforms," observed Mr. Aylett,
dryly.

"You are a less sensible man than I give you credit for being, if
you ever begin!" interposed his sister.

"Leave Mabel to herself until she recovers from the shock--if it be
one--of this intelligence. The surest means of keeping alive a dying
coal is to stir and blow upon it. And even we"--lifting the heavy
locks of her husband's hair in playful dalliance--"even we are
mortal. We have had our peccadilloes and our repentances, and have
now our little concealments of affairs that would interest nobody
but ourselves. Do you hear what I am saying, Herbert! Leave off your
high tragedy airs and attend to reason, as expressed in your
sister's advice. While your wife is my invalid guest, I will not
have her subjected to any inquisitorial process. There is a time for
everything under the sun, saith the preacher. This is the season for
tender forbearance, and if need be, of forgiveness."

Herbert blessed her humane tolerance in his alarmed heart, when
Mabel awoke from her troubled slumbers at midnight, in extreme pain,
that culminated before dawn, in convulsions.

Two physicians were hastily summoned, and when Mrs. Sutton arrived
about noon, she met Phillis outside the door of the sick-chamber,
carrying a lifeless infant in her arms, and weeping bitterly.

This was the end of the months of hopeful longing and glad
anticipation which were Heaven's messengers of healing and comfort
to the sick and lonely heart. The cunningly-fashioned robes were
never to have a wearer, the clasping arms to remain still empty. Oh
wondrous mystery--past finding out--of the human soul! Had the lungs
once heaved with breath, the heart given one throb; the eyes caught
one beam of Heaven's light ere they were sealed fast in eternal
darkness, she, who travailed with the infant through the
inexpressible agony of birth, would have been written a mother among
women; have had the right accorded her, without the cavil of
formalist or the disputations of science, to claim the precious
thing as her own still--a living baby-spirit that had fluttered back
to the bosom of the Almighty Father, after alighting, for one
painful moment, upon the confines of the lower world. As it was,
custom ordained that there should be no mourning for what had never
really been. Anguish, hope, and the patient love at which we do not
scoff when the mother-bird broods over the eggs that may never
hatch--these were to be no more named or remembered. In silence and
without sympathy she must endure her disappointment. The tenderest
woman about whose knees cluster living children, and who has sowed
in tears the blessed seed, that in the resurrection-morn shall be
gathered in beauteous sheaves of richest recompense--would smile in
pitying contempt over the tiny headstone which should be
lettered--"Born Dead."

All this and much more Mabel was to learn with the return of health
and reason, but she lay now, like one who had passed for herself the
narrow sea that separates the Now from the Hereafter; her features
chiselled into the unmoving outlines of a waxen image, only a feeble
flutter of breath and pulse telling that this was lethargy, not
death. They watched her all night, Mrs. Sutton on one side and
Phillis on the other, the family physician stealing in with
slippered tread from hour to hour, to note with his sensitive touch
if the few poor drops of vital blood yet trickled from veins to
heart, always with the same directions, "Give her the stimulant
while she can swallow it. It is the only hope of saving her."

Armed with this, the two devoted women fought the Destroyer, praying
inaudibly, while they wrought, for the life of the child they had
reared to her sorrowful womanhood.

"HE'S asleep, and so is SHE!" whispered Phillis, once, pointing
alternately to the adjoining room where Herbert Dorrance awaited the
issue of this critical stage of his wife's illness, and to Mrs.
Aylett's chamber across the hall. "The Lord forgive 'em both! It
won't be they two that will shed many tears if so be she doesn't see
the light of another day--the murdered lamb! They tormented the life
out of her. I passed by her room last night before bed-time, and
heard her a-sobbin' and talkin' to herself, and walkin' up and down
the floor, and THEY a-bangin' away on the pyano down in the parlor!"

The faithful creature's prejudice wronged one of the hated pair.
Mrs. Aylett's slumbers upon her downy couch might be none the less
serene for her sister-in-law's danger, but Herbert's was the sleep
of exhaustion, not callousness. He had been up all the previous
night, and racked by the wildest anxiety throughout the intervening
day, and to compass this vigil was beyond his physical powers. Mabel
would not miss him, and he could do nothing for her--would only be
in the way, being totally unpractised in the art of nursing, he
reasoned; and there was no telling what new draught upon his
strength the morrow might bring. He would just lie down for an hour;
then he would be fresh for whatever service might be required of
him. With this prudent resolve, he threw himself along the bed in
the spare-room, and was oblivious of everything sublunary until
sunrise.

"If there should be any change, call me!" Mrs. Aylett had enjoined,
plaintively. "Winston will not hear of my sitting up, but I shall
not close my eyes all night, so do not hesitate to disturb me, if I
can be of any use whatever."

Which, it is idle to remark, was the last thing either of the nurses
thought of doing. If their darling were, in truth, dying, they were
the fittest persons to receive her latest sigh; for had they not
been present at her birth, and did not her mother go to glory from
their supporting arms?

There was a change, and not a favorable one, before daybreak. The
patient, from mutterings and restless starts, passed into violent
delirium, laughing, crying, and singing in a style so opposed to the
prescribed diagnosis of her case, as to lash the provincial doctor
to his wits' end, and extinguish in Aunt Rachel's sanguine heart the
faint hope to which she had clung until now. Herbert, awakened
finally by the turbulent sounds from the room he had been told must
be kept perfectly quiet, jumped up, and showed himself, with
disordered hair and blinking eyes, in the door of communication,
just as Mabel struggled to rise, and pleaded weepingly with those
who held her down that they would restore her child to her.

"I had her in my arms not a moment ago!" she insisted. "See! the
print of her little head is here on my breast! You have taken her
away among you! I saw it all--those who ordered that it should be
done and those who did it, when I was too weak to hold her, or to
keep them back!"

And passing from the height of furious invective to deadly and
earnest calm, she told them off upon her fingers.

"Clara Aylett! Rosa Tazewell! Winston Aylett! (he married Clara
Louise Dorrance, you know!) Herbert Dorrance! JULIUS LENNOX!"

The household was astir by this time, and Mrs. Aylett entered from
the hall as her brother did from his bedroom. There was but one
spectator who was sufficiently composed to note and marvel at the
scared look exchanged by the two at the sound of the last name. This
was Mr. Aylett, who, from his position behind his wife, had an
excellent view of all the actors in the exciting tableau before she
fell back, swooning, in his arms.

He was alone with her in their chamber when she revived, and the
earliest effort of her restored consciousness was to seize both his
hands in hers, and scan his face searchingly--it would seem
agonizingly--until his fond smile dispelled the unspoken dread.

"Ah!" she murmured, hiding her face upon his bosom, "she is still
alive, then! I thought--I thought"--a mighty sob--"Don't despise
your weak, silly wife, darling! but it was very terrible! I believed
it was the last struggle, and was appalled at the sight. And my poor
Herbert! he was frightfully overcome. Did you notice him? Will you
send him to me, dear? I can soothe him better than any one
else--prepare him for what is, I fear, inevitable. I shall not give
way again to my terrors."

The brother and sister were still together when word was brought,
two hours later that Mabel had fallen into a profound sleep--a good
omen, the doctor said.

"Thank Heaven!" ejaculated Herbert, fervently, his eyes softening
until he turned away to conceal his emotion.

He was haggard with solicitude, while Mrs. Aylett's healthful bloom
betokened slight interest in the termination of the seizure, a
glance at which had thrown her into a faint. Nor did she echo the
thanksgiving. She waited until the messenger had gone, and continued
the conversation her entrance had interrupted.

"I incline to the belief that she caught the name, in some manner,
on Christmas before last. HE was delirious, too, and although doctor
and nurse reported that he did not speak articulately after he was
brought in, she may have heard more than they. From what has been
told me, I gather that she was in the room with him alone, while
Mrs. Sutton was down-stairs looking for Dr. Ritchie. In a lucid
interval he may have given his name--possibly some particulars of
his history. Unless--are you positive there has been no indiscretion
on your part, or that others may have talked negligently to her,
because she was a member of the family?"

"There are topics of which we--your mother, sister, and
brothers--never speak, even to one another. You may trust us that
far," rejoined Herbert, emphatically. "Nor do I see what we can do,
except wait for other proof that Mabel really knows anything beyond
a name she has picked up at random and never, to my knowledge,
repeated, save in her ravings. Should she recover, the test can be
easily applied, and we can judge then, how to handle the dilemma."

"Should she recover!" He said the words reluctantly, as loth to
express the doubt.

His sister's lips twitched nervously into a sinister smile. It was
as if she would have whispered, had she dared, "Heaven forbid!"

"You have chosen a toilsome and a perilous path, Clara," he resumed,
by and by. "I do not wonder that you are, with all your courage and
sanguine trust in your own powers, sometimes disquieted, and often
weary."

"Who says that I am ever weary? And did you ever know me to disquiet
myself in vain?" with the low, musical ripple of laughter that
belonged to her sunniest mood. "Had I been born in the classic age,
I should have been a devout disciple of Epicurus. Don't imagine that
my success has not, thus far, amply repaid me for my toil and
ingenuity. Having lived upon excitement all my days, I should starve
without it. Pleasure, like safety, is the dearer for being plucked
from that evergreen nettle, Danger!"

CHAPTER XV.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN.

THE snows of ten winters had powdered the nameless stranger's grave
in the servant's burial-ground of the Ridgeley plantation. For nine
years the wallet taken from his person had lain unopened in a hidden
drawer of Mabel Dorrance's escritoire, and the half-guessed secret
been hidden in her breast. Mammy Phillis had followed her mistress
to the tomb, six months after her removal from her beloved cottage
to the despised "quarters." She never held up her head from the day
of her degradation, died from a broken heart, murmured those who
best knew her--of a "fit of spleen," said Mrs. Aylett, in cool
reprehension of her unmannerly vassal.

Mabel had guarded the mystery well. Her husband examined
her--covertly, as he thought; awkwardly, according to her ideas--with
regard to the vagaries of her delirium, and was foiled by the grave
simplicity of her manner and replies.

"All she knows or remembers is substantially this," Herbert jotted
down in his notes for his sister's perusal: "she has associated in
some way--she cannot tell exactly how or why--the name with the
tramp who died in the garret. She is not sure that it was his
designation. Thinks it was not, or that, if used by him, it was an
alias. Has an impression that it was marked upon his clothing, or
upon a paper found in his pocket. Showed no agitation and little
interest in the subject, except when she inquired if I saw the
stranger at all--living or dead. Was glad I could reply truly,
'No.' Answer seemed to gratify her, which you may consider a
disagreeable augury. Am convinced that her illness resulted from
natural and unavoidable causes--that neither F---C---nor
J----L---had any connection with it. It will be months before mind
and body recover their tone."

"Lawyerly! ergo, absurd and unsatisfactory!" pronounced the reader,
to whom the foregoing leaf had been committed on the morning of her
brother's departure with his slowly-convalescing wife for their
Albany home. "But until the nettle pricks more nearly, I shall
continue to enjoy my roses."

They had blossomed thickly about her path during this decade. Her
matronly beauty was the wonder and praise of the community. The
changing seasons that had bleached the locks upon her husband's
temples and heightened his forehead had spared the bronzed chestnut
of her luxuriant tresses. Her figure was larger and fuller, but
graceful, and more queenly than of yore--if that could be. There
was not an untuneful inflection in her voice, or a furrow between
her brows. Under her careful management the homestead wore every
year an air of increased elegance. No other furniture for many miles
on both sides of the river could compare with hers; no other
servants were so well-trained, no grounds so beautifully ornamented
and trimly kept.

"But for all that Ridgeley is a lonely, desolate place to me," said
Mrs. Sutton, one early spring morning to her niece and crony, Mrs.
William Sutton. "A house without children is worse than a last
year's bird's nest. It is a riddle to me how Clara Aylett contrives
to occupy her time."

"She should have some of these socks to darn, if it hangs upon her
hands," replied Mrs. William, humorously, running her five fingers
through the toe of one she had just picked up from the great willow
basket set between the two upon the porch-floor.

"The Lord isn't very apt to make mothers out of that sort of
material," said the elder lady. "Nor fathers out of Winston Ayletts.
They are so wrapped up in their self-consequence as to have no
thought for others."

"Yet they say Mr. Aylett regrets that he has no heir. It is a great
pity Mabel lost her only child as she did. The family will become
extinct in another generation. It is such a noble estate, too!"

"Large families were never the rule among the Ayletts," responded
Aunt Rachel. "But I did hope my dear Mabel would be an exception to
the rest in this respect. She would adopt a little girl, but her
husband will not consent. Those Dorrances are a cold-hearted race.
He, too, is heaping up riches, without knowing who shall gather
them. Heigh-ho!"

Her darning-needle quilted the yawning heel of Tommy Sutton's sock
with precision and celerity, and she ruminated silently upon the
vicissitudes and failures of mortal life until she was interrupted
by Mrs. William's exclamation:

"There is Mrs. Tazewell's carriage at the gate, and the driver has a
letter in his hand. I hope the old lady is not worse!"

Aunt Rachel met the man at the steps, with neighborly anxiety.

"How is your mistress, Jack?"

"'Bout the same, ma'am. But Miss Rosa--she came last night very
unexpected, and it kinder worsted Mistis to see her so poorly. This
note is from Miss Rosa, ma'am, and I am to take back an answer."

Mrs. Sutton read it standing in the porch--the scented leaflet that
had a look of the writer all over it, from the scarlet monogram at
the top of the sheet and upon the envelope, to the flourish of the
signature--"Rosa T. C."--the curl of the C carried around the rest
like a medallion frame:

"DEAR, GOOD AUNT RACHEL,--I have come to Old Virginia to try and
shake off an uncomfortable cough which has haunted me all winter.
The Northern quacks can do nothing for me. One ray of this delicious
sunshine is worth all their nostrums. I was not prepared to find
mamma helpless, or I should not have descended upon her so
unceremoniously. Being here, I cannot retreat in good order or with
safety to my health, nor without wounding her. Frederic must return
to Philadelphia next week, by which time I hope to be quite
invigorated. Now for my audacious proposal. Can you come over and
tell me how to get well in the quickest and least troublesome way?
Dear Auntie! you loved me once. When you see what a poor, spiritless
shadow I have grown--or lessened--to be, you will care a little bit
for me again, for the sake of lang syne."

Mrs. Sutton wiped her spectacles and gave the note to her niece.

"There is but one thing for me to do, you see, my dear. Jack! I
shall be ready in twenty minutes."

If the line of duty wavered before her sight during the three-mile
drive, it lay straight and distinct ahead of her when she stood in
Rosa's chamber.

"My child!" she ejaculated, upon the threshold "you did not tell me
that you were confined to your bed!"

"I ought not to be!"

The rebellious pout and tone were Rosa's, as were also the black
eyes--unnaturally large and bright though they were--but the pretty
lips were wan, and strained by lines of pain; the pomegranate flush
was no longer variable, and was nestled in hollows, and the hands
were wasted to translucency.

"I am quite strong enough to be up, and would be, if my tyrannical
doctors and their tractable tool, my lord and master, had not
decreed that I shall lie here until midday, if I am very obedient;
eat my meals; take their poisonous medicines, and abstain from
coughing. If I offend in any of these particulars I am not to rise
until three o'clock--when they are in an especially glum humor--not
at all that day. But now you are here, we shall combat them
valorously. Dear Auntie!" putting the thin arms about the old lady's
plump neck, and laughing through a spring rain of tears, "how good
and safe it is to be with you again! And you are the same kind,
lovely darling! no older by a day--no uglier by a solitary wrinkle!
I couldn't sleep last night, for fearing you would not come to me!"

"You should not have doubted it, dear!" said the motherly voice,
blithe as affectionate, while soft, agile fingers undid the tight
embrace, and commenced, from the force of habit, to arrange the
tumbled bed-clothes. "Wherever I can be of most use is the place in
which I wish to be."

"I know you have always lived for others," answered Rosa, with an
involuntary sigh, a shadow glooming her eyes.

"For whom else should I live and work?" laughed Mrs. Sutton, in her
cheerful, guileless fashion. "My personal wants are few and easily
supplied, and I like to be busy. I account it a privilege to be able
to fuss about my friends when they are ailing."

By way of doing as she liked, she attacked the disorderly room.
Rosa's three trunks stood in a row against the wall--all of them
open--the tray of the largest lying beside it upon the carpet, the
lid of this thrown back and the contents in utter confusion; laces
hanging over the sides and trailing upon the floor. A casket of
medicines was uppermost in the next trunk, crushing a confused
medley of collars, ribbons, gloves, and handkerchiefs. A
dressing-gown lay upon the seat of one chair, a skirt over the back
of another; boots and slippers peeped from the valance of the
antique bedstead; there was a formidable array of bottles upon
mantel and bureau--conspicuous among them cod-liver oil, cologne,
and laudanum--incongruous appendages to the various appliances of
the toilette scattered between them.

Mrs. Sutton understood it all--the hurry and agitation of the
unlooked-for arrival; the faintness and prostration of the
consumptive; the restless night, and the well-meant but inefficient
ministrations of negroes in an establishment where the mistress had
been feeble for years, and was now chained to her room and chair by
paralysis.

"And Rosa was always an indolent flyabout in health; accustomed to
have a score of servants at her heels to pick up whatever she
dropped or threw aside," she said to herself. "My Mabel was a pink
of neatness and order compared with her. Dear me! here is a bottle
of oil, cracked, and an immense grease-spot in the front breadth of
a splendid silk dress! I hope these things do not annoy her as they
would me!"

Whether the universal disarray made Rosa uncomfortable or not, she
enjoyed the aspect of the tidy apartment, when her nurse brought her
noiseless labors to a close by exchanging her night-gown for a
flannel wrapper; putting clean linen upon her and the bed; combing
the tangled hair and washing her hands, wrists, and face in tepid
water, interfused with cologne.

"It prevents a sick person from taking cold when bathed, and
freshens her up wonderfully, I think," was her explanation of the
fragrant preparation.

"YOU freshen me more than all things else combined!" said Rosa,
gratefully. "Ah, auntie! how often I have thought of, and wished for
you this tedious and dismal winter! I used to spend entire weeks in
bed, attended by a horrid hired nurse, who took snuff and
drank--ugh! and snubbed and terrified me whenever I--as she
described it--'took a notion into my head;' that is, when I asked
for something she thought was too troublesome for her ladyship to
prepare, or wanted Fred to stay all night in my room, or sit by me
in the evening, and pet me. She 'couldn't bear to have men around,
cluttering up everything!' she would growl the instant his back was
turned, with a deal more of the same talk, until I was afraid to ask
him to take a seat the next time he came in. He was continually
bringing home baskets of fruit, and game, and bouquets for me. She
let me have the flowers, but she ate nine-tenths of the nice things
herself, I never suspecting her, and he was too delicate to ask if I
enjoyed his presents. At length he surprised her in the act of
devouring a bunch of hot-house grapes, for which he had paid almost
their weight in gold, and then all came to light, and he sent her
off in a hurry. Poor Fred, there were great tears in his eyes when
he learned what persecution I had undergone, rather than vex him by
complaints."

"It would have been better had you told him sooner, dear! It would
have spared you and him much suffering."

"I knew how engrossed he was by his business, and how ignorant he
was of household or medical matters, and I saved him all the bother
I could. I have tried, in some things and some times, to be a good
wife, Aunt Rachel! But often I have failed, O, how egregiously!
and"--beginning to weep--"the thought pierces my heart by day and by
night. What if I never have an opportunity of doing any better, of
covering up the traces of my footsteps?"

Mrs. Sutton patted the wasted hand with her cool one, but essayed no
other soothing.

"Where is your husband now? I understood from your note that he was
with you."

"He rode over to Dr. Ritchie's this morning, directly he had given
me my breakfast. He thinks highly of his skill, and he would not be
contented without bringing him to see me. I really believe he is
anxious I should get well! Strange--isn't it? when I am such a
burden upon his mind and hands."

Aunt Rachel smiled.

"Not at all strange, you ridiculous child! Two of the most
dearly-loved wives I ever knew were invalids, and bedridden, not for
weeks only, but for years. You can best show your gratitude for his
affection and kindness by getting better rapidly while he is here,
that he may leave you with a lighter heart."

"He is kind! too kind!" murmured Rosa, composing herself among the
cushions, as if to sleep.

She was quiet so long that Mrs. Button had leisure for some
reflections relating to her own personal action in the somewhat
embarrassing position she occupied. She had never seen Frederic
Chrlton from the day he left Ridgeley as Mabel's betrothed. His
visits to the neighborhood since his marriage had been few and
brief, and she had studied to avoid him whenever she happened to be
with the William Suttons during one of these. He might have guessed
her design, or unwittingly favored it on his own account. The
meeting would not be more pleasant to him than to her. But why had
he allowed his wife to send for her? The alteration in him must
indeed be great, if he could, without a conflict with resentful and
painful memories, bow his pride to sue for the services of a
relative of the Ayletts, and formerly one of their household, even
in such a cause as that which now commanded her sympathies.

At this point of her cogitation she became aware that Rosa's eyes
were wide open, and staring at her with a whimsical blending of
curiosity, melancholy, and gratification.

"Aunt Rachel!" she said, bluntly, "you are a very good woman! the
best and most forgiving human being I ever heard of. I should not
feel one particle of surprise to see you float up gently through the
roof, at any minute--cap, spectacles, and all--translated to the
society of your sister angels--and no questions asked by St. Peter
at the gate of Paradise!"

"My love!"

Well as she knew her erratic disposition and wild style of speech,
Mrs. Sutton moved her hand toward the patient's pulse.

"I am not raving! I speak the words of truth and soberness--very sad
soberness, too! Believing as you do that Frederic was once the cause
of much sorrow to you and to one you loved, and having no reason to
care one iota for me, but rather to distrust me, you nevertheless
obey my call upon you for service, as if I had every right to make
it. And when here, you treat me just as you would Mabel, were her
situation as deplorable, her need equal to mine."

"Why shouldn't I?" questioned Mrs. Sutton, simply. "I have no ground
for a quarrel with you. And if I had--well, the truth is, my dear, I
have a poor memory for such things!"

Rosa caught at the scarcely perceptible emphasis upon the "YOU," and
disregarded the remainder of the remark.

"You cannot yet acquit Frederic of wrong-doing! Indeed, Mrs. Sutton,
he has been foully wronged among you. It is not because he is my
husband that I say this. Mabel's name has never passed his lips---
nor mine in his hearing, since I became his wife. And every one of
the family has been equally guarded when he was by. I doubt,
sometimes, if he has ever heard whom she married or where she
lives--so carefully has he shunned every reference to her or any of
the Ridgeley people. During the nine years we have lived together,
he has given me no cause to suspect that he ever thinks of her, or
laments the broken engagement. If I have made myself wretched by
imagining the contrary, it was my fault, not his--my foolish, wicked
jealousy. I would scorn to imply a doubt of his integrity, by
reminding him of the charges proferred against him by Winston
Aylett, and believed by his sister--much less ask him to contradict
them. I never put any faith in them from the outset. It comforts me
to recollect that my confidence in him stood fast when everybody
else distrusted him--my noble, slandered darling! But my declaration
of his innocence is founded upon his blameless life and upright
principles. No one could be with him as I have been, and doubt him.
He is a perfect man--if there was ever a sinless
mortal--great-hearted, gentle, and sincere. Do not I know this? Have
I not proved him to the utmost?"

Her rapid, impassioned declamation was ended by a copious flood of
grief that provoked a frightful fit of coughing. When this was
subdued she was weaker than a year-old infant, and lay between
stupor and dreaming for so long a time, that Mrs. Sutton became
alarmed.

There must be no repetition of this scene. She most ward off similar
mishaps by whatever measures she could force or cajole her
conscience into adopting. Rosa's state was more precarious than her
account had led her friend to believe, or than the nurse's
experienced eye had seen at their meeting. The main hope of her
recovery was in the warmer climate and assiduous attendance. Above
all, she should not be allowed to exhaust herself by talking, or
hysterical paroxysms. She had no more self-control than a child, and
she must be treated as such. Mrs. Sutton's jesuitical resolve was to
humor her by every imaginable device, even to feigned friendship for
Frederic Chilton.

Fortified by this resolution, she heard, without any show of pride
or trepidation, the clatter of horses' hoofs in the yard; the sound
of voices below stairs, as Mr. Chilton ushered the physician into
the parlor, and the light, careful tread with which he mounted to
his wife's apartment. His momentary pause at the entrance, and
surprised look at beholding the other tenant of the chamber, were
the best passport to her indulgence he could have desired. It was
clear to her instantly that poor Rosa's passion for manoeuvring had
survived the wreck of health and prostration of spirits. She had
never chosen the straight path if she could find a crooked or a
by-road, and her project for obtaining Mrs. Sutton's services and
company had been put into execution, without consultation with her
husband. However reprehensible this might be in the abstract, it was
not in the kind old soul to betray her, as she advanced, placidly
and civilly, to reassure the startled man.

"How are you, Mr. Chilton? You hardly expected to meet me here, I
suppose? But I am a near neighbor of Mrs. Tazewell now, and hearing
that Rosa was sick, I came over to see if I could do anything for
her, knowing how infirm her mother is."

"You are very kind!" He grasped her hand more tightly than he
intended, or was conscious of. "We were ignorant ourselves of Mrs.
Tazewell's true condition. Mrs. Chilton's sisters have forwarded
more encouraging reports to her of her mother's illness than they
would have been warranted in doing by anything except the fear that
a faithful account would operate injuriously upon the daughter's
health. I should have chosen some other home for my wife, had I
known the actual state of affairs here. Change of scene and climate
was imperatively demanded."

He spoke low and rapidly--hardly above his breath; but the black
eyes, unclosing, flashed upon him.

"So you have come back!" said Rosa's weak voice. "You stayed away an
eternity!"

Her coquettish displeasure and the asperity of her accent contrasted
so oddly with her vehemently expressed attachment for her husband
and extolment of his virtues, that Mrs. Sutton regarded her in
speechless amazement. She submitted to his kiss, without returning
it--even raising her hand pettishly as to repel further endearments.
"I should have died of the blue devils if Aunt Rachel hadn't, by the
merest accident, heard that I was ailing, and driven over, like the
Good Samaritan she is, to take pity upon me in my destitution; to
pour oil--not cod-liver--into my wounds, and wine into my mouth. She
is better than all the men-doctors that were ever created; so if
you have brought your bearded Esculapius home with you, you may tell
him, with my compliments, that I won't see him yet awhile. He was an
old beau of mine, and I hope I have too much respect for what I used
to be, to let him get a glimpse of me until Dr. Sutton has set me up
in better flesh and looks. She brought me some enchanting jelly--one
of her magical preparations for the amelioration of human misery,
and I am to have a bowl of her unparalleled chicken-broth for
dinner. I wish dinner-time were come! the very thought makes me
ravenous. I am to do nothing for a week, but eat, drink, and sleep,
at the end of which period I shall be dismissed as thoroughly cured.
So, Mr. Chilton, you can go back to your beloved clients whenever
you please!"

To Mrs. Sutton's apprehension this was an infelicitous introduction
of herself to the husband's toleration. Certainly, she did not know
many men who would have parried the thrusts at themselves with the
dexterity he manifested, and acknowledged her merits and kindly
offices willingly and gracefully. He did not apologize for his
protracted absence, nor insist upon conveying his physician to the
sick-chamber; but he chatted for five minutes or thereabouts upon
such topics as he knew would entertain the captious invalid, and
finally arose from the bed-side, where he had been sitting, fondling
her hot hands, with a good-humored laugh.

"But all the while I am enjoying myself here, the hirsute Galen
aforesaid is munching the invisible salad of the solitary in the
parlor! I am to eject him incontinently, am I? My conscience will
not let me withhold the admission, when I do this, that my wife's
judgment in the matter of medical attendants is vastly superior to
mine. While Mrs. Sutton is so good as to remain with you, you are
right in thinking that you have need of no other physician."

Aunt Rachel would have entered a disclaimer, but Rosa spoke before
she could open her mouth.

"I didn't say that, Frederic! There was never such another impatient
and inconsiderate creature upon the globe as yourself. It would be
unpardonably rude in us to send the man away, if he is a charlatan,
without letting him see me. Have him up, by all means, and let us
hear what priggish nonsense he has to say. He will feel the easier
when it is done."

Dr. Ritchie's private report to Mrs. Sutton, who accompanied him to
tne lower floor, under color of seeing that he was served with
luncheon, was discouraging. The disease had made fearful inroads
upon a constitution that had never been robust, and the nervous
excitability of the patient was likely to accelerate her decline.
She might linger for several months. It would not surprise him to
hear that she had died within twelve hours after his visit. It was
but fair and professional he added, that he should, through Mrs.
Sutton, advise Mr. Chilton of her state, although, unless he were
mistaken, he had already anticipated his verdict.

This Mrs. Sutton found was the case, when she essayed that evening
to insure him against the awful shock of his wife's unexpected
dissolution.

"She has never been entirely well since the death of our second
child, a year ago," he said. "The little one was buried on a very
stormy day, and the mother would not be dissuaded from going to the
cemetery. The severe cold, acting upon a system enfeebled by grief,
induced an attack of pneumonia. Dr. Ritchie but coincides with every
other physician I have consulted."

"It is a pity you are obliged to leave her so soon," observed the
sympathizing nurse. "Although she may be more comfortable a week
hence than she is now."

"A week! I had no intention of returning in less than a month's
time. I made all my arrangements to that effect before leaving home.
Rosa's reference to my desire to go back to my clients was sheer
badinage"--smiling mournfully. "You have heard her talk often
enough to understand how little of earnest there is in the
raillery." More insincerity! For, contradictory as it may appear,
Mrs. Sutton felt constrained to believe his unsupported word, in
opposition to his wife's written assertion that he designed to
return to his practice the ensuing week.

"She thought I would be more apt to come if I imagined that he would
soon be gone!" was her grieved reflection. "If she could beguile me
hither by this assurance, she trusted to her coaxings and my
compassion to retain me. O Rosa! Rosa! cannot even the honest hour
teach you to be truthful?"

CHAPTER XVI.

THE HONEST HOUR.

The shadow of death drew on apace to the sight of all, save the
consumptive, and her semi-imbecile mother. These seemed alike blind
to the fatal symptoms that were more strongly defined with every
passing day. The paralytic sat in her wheeled chair, in the March
sunshine, at the window of her chamber, and talked droningly of
other times and paltry pleasures to that one of her daughters or
grand-children whose turn it was to minister to her comfort and
amusement, and insisted upon having all the neighborhood news
repeated in her dull ear with wearisome--to the
narrator--amplifications and reiterations, shaking with childish
laughter at the humorous passages, and whimpering at the pathetic.
Rosa cheated time of heaviness by unceasing demands upon her
attendants for service and diversion. Unable to sleep, except at
long intervals, in snatches of fitful dozing, she had a horror of
being alone for an instant, from dusk until dawn; was ingenious in
contrivances to surprise an unwary watcher nodding upon her post;
plenteous and plaintive in lamentations, if the device succeeded.
Fifty times a night her pillows must be shaken, her drink, food, or
medicine given, and after each of these offices had been performed,
occurred the petition:

"Now--sit where I can see you whenever I open my eyes! It drives me
crazy to imagine for a moment that I am by myself. I want to be sure
all the while that some living human being is near at hand. I have
such frightful dreams! I awake always with the impression that I am
drowning or suffocating, or floating away into a sea of darkness
alone!"

With the light of day, her spirits revived, and her hopes of speedy
recovery.

"You need not grudge waiting upon me now, for I shall be up and
about shortly--well and spry as the best of you!" she would say.
"And while I am playing invalid, I mean to have my quantum of
attention. I have been avaricious of devotion all my life, and this
is a golden chance that may never happen again."

Her husband she would not willingly suffer to leave her for an
instant. But for Mrs. Sutton's management and kindly authority, he
would have been condemned to take his meals at her bedside and from
the same tray with herself. She would be removed from the bed to the
lounge by no other arms than his, and at any hour of the twenty-four
he was liable to be called upon to read, sing, or talk her into
composure. Variable as ever in mood and fancy, and more capricious
in the exhibition of these, she was fond, sullen, teasing, and
mirthful with him as the humor of the moment dictated; sometimes
assailing him with reproaches for his indifference and want of
regard for her wishes and tastes, now that she was no longer young,
pretty, and sprightly; at others, clinging to him with protestations
of repentance and love, bewailing her waywardness and imploring his
forbearance; then, taking him to task for the slightest
inadvertence--the spilling of a drop of her medicine or jarring of
her sofa or bed; anon lauding him to the skies as the most skilful
nurse she had, and enjoining upon all about her to render verbal
testimonial to his irreproachableness as husband and man--oh! it was
a wearisome, oftentimes a revolting duty to listen to and bear with
it all--keep in mind though one did that the intolerable
restlessness preluded centuries of dreamless repose.

Mrs. Sutton could endure everything else better--and she believed
that it was the same with Frederic--than the needless and puerile
trickery to which Rosa resorted to achieve the most trivial
purposes. If she wished that one of her sisters should pass the day
with her, or to sit up for a part of the night, she worked upon her
by means of others' intercessions, or broached the subject by covert
passages, the end of which, she flattered herself, was successfully
masked, until her train was ready for explosion. Did she set her
fancy upon any particular article of diet, the same tortuous course
was pursued to present the delicacy in question to the mind of him
or her who, she designed, should be the provider. Under her sauciest
rattle of fun or perversity lurked some subtle meaning. She had
either some end to subserve, or wanted to possess herself of some
bit of information she could have gained sooner and more easily by
direct inquiry. Cajolery and intrigue had become a second nature,
stronger than the original; and it never occurred to her that her
wiles, in her mental and bodily decadence, were transparent as they
had once been artful.

A discovery, made on the fourth day of her visit, excited Mrs.
Sutton's sympathies in behalf of the much enduring husband to a
pitch it required long and serious pondering upon the wife's
weakness and critical condition to restrain from indignant
demonstration.

Rosa was sleeping more soundly than usual under the influence of an
anodyne, and Frederic, with a whispered apology to his coadjutor,
went into the next room, leaving the door ajar. From her seat, Mrs.
Sutton had a distinct view of him in an opposite mirror--a
circumstance of which she was not aware for several minutes.
Happening, then, to look up from her knitting she saw that he was
writing, and half an hour afterward that he was leaning back in his
chair, looking at something in the hollow of his hand, a mingling of
such love and sadness in his countenance that she felt it would be
unlawful prying into his most sacred feelings for her to watch him
longer. He turned his head at the slight rustle she made in removing
to another part of the room, and beckoned to her. At her approach,
he arose and held out a morocco case, containing the miniature of a
child--a bright-eyed, delicate-featured girl of seven or eight
summers--exquisitely painted.

"You have never seen my little Florence, I think?"

"I have not. She is pretty--and resembles you strongly."

He did not color or laugh at the unconscious compliment, or seem
pleased at her praise of his darling. Instead, there crept over his
face a shade of more painful sadness, darkening his eyes and
compressing his lip, as he answered--

"So every one says. She is the dearest child in the world--a sunbeam
of gladness in any house--amiable, affectionate, and intelligent. I
wish you would read her last letter to me. She is a better
correspondent than many grown people." Then, smiling,
apologetically, "If my commendation seem overstrained, you will
excuse a father's partiality."

The letter--although the unformed chirography betrayed the writer's
inexperience in pen-practice--was correctly spelled and easy in
style, crowded with loving messages to "dear papa and mamma;"
relating anecdotes of school and home life, and while expressive of
her longings for her parents' return, professing willingness to stay
where she was "until mamma should be well enough to come back."

"I pray every night that God will cure her, and make us all happy
again," she wrote. "I dreamed one night last week that I saw her
dressed for a party, all rosy and funny and laughing, as she used to
be, and that she kissed me, and put her arm around me, and called me
'baby Florence' and 'little one,' in her sweet voice. Wasn't it
strange? I awoke myself crying, I was so happy! I do try to be
brave, and not fret about what cannot be helped, papa, because I
promised you I would; but sometimes it is right hard work. It is
always easier for a whole day after I get one of your nice, long
letters. It is not QUITE as good as having real talk with you, but
it is the best treat I can have when you are away."

Mrs. Sutton wiped her eyes.

"The dear child!" she said, in the subdued tone habitual to the
frequenters of the sick-room. "No wonder you want to see her! Why
didn't you give her a holiday, and bring her to Virginia with you?"

"I dreaded the effect of a child's high animal spirits and
thoughtless bustle upon her mother's health"--the shadow thickening
into trouble. "The next best thing to having her with me is to know
that she is kindly and lovingly looked after by my married sister,
of whom she is very fond. Florence is merrier, if not always
happier, with her young cousins than if she were condemned to the
repression and joyless routine of a house where the care of the sick
is the most engrossing business to all."

The more Mrs. Sutton meditated upon this conversation, the more
enigmatical it appeared that the mother never spoke of missing her
only living child--never pined for the sound of her vivacious talk
and the sight of her winning ways. Curiosity--her strong love for
all children, and a lively interest in Florence and Florence's
father, the two who assuredly did feel the separation--got the
ascendency over discretion that night, when Rosa, too nervous to
sleep, begged her to talk, "to scare away the horrors that were
sitting, a blue-black brood, upon her pillow."

"Your little daughter would be an endless source of entertainment to
you if she were here," said downright Aunt Rachel, with no show of
circumlocution. "I am surprised you do not send for her."

"Children of that age are a nuisance!" returned Rosa, peevishly.
"And of all tiresome ones that I ever saw, Florence is the most
trying. She doesn't talk after I bid her hold her tongue, but her
big, solemn eyes see and her ears hear all that passes. If there is
one thing that pushes me nearer to the verge of distraction than
another it is to have my own words quoted to me when I have
forgotten that I ever uttered them. And she--literal little
bore!--is always pretending to take all that I say in earnest. If I
were to tell her to go to Guinea, it is my belief she would put on
her bonnet, cloak, and gloves, pocket a biscuit for luncheon and a
story-book to read by the way, and set out forthwith, asking the
first decent-looking man she met in the street at what wharf she
would find a vessel bound for Africa."

Mrs. Sutton was obliged to laugh.

"She must be a truthful, sincere little thing!"

"Didn't I tell you she is TOO outrageously literal and
unimaginative? Just let me give you an example of how she tires and
vexes me. One day, about a fortnight before I left home, she set her
heart upon spending the whole of Saturday afternoon with me. Her
father objected, for he understands, if he does not sympathize with
me, what a trial she is to flesh and spirit. But I was moderately
comfortable, and my nerves were less unruly than usual, so I said we
would try and get on together.

"No sooner had he gone than the catechism commenced:

"'Now, mamma, what can I do to amuse you?'

"She talks like a woman of fifty.

"'What should you propose if I were to leave it to you?' I asked.

"'I suppose,' said my Lady Cutshort, 'that it would excite you too
much to talk, so I had better read aloud. What book do you prefer?'

"I named one--a novel I had not finished--and resigned myself to
martyrdom. She reads fluently--her father says prettily; but the
piping voice rasped my auriculars to the quick, and I soon stopped
the exhibition. Then we essayed conversation, but our range of
themes was limited, and a dismal silence succeeded to a short
dialogue. By and by I told her that I was sleepy, hoping she would
take the hint and leave my room.

"'Then, mamma, I will just get my work-basket, and sit here, as
still as a mouse, and prevent all disturbance.'

"With that, she gets out her miniature thimble and scissors, and
falls to work upon a pair of slippers she was embroidering for her
father's birthday present, sitting up, starched and prim as an old
maid, her lips pursed, and her forehead gravely consequential. I
could not close my eyes without seeing her still, like an undersized
nightmare, her hair smooth to the least hair, her dress neat to the
smallest fold, stitching, stitching, the affected, conceited
marmoset!

"At last I said:

"'Put down your sewing, Florence, and look out of the window at the
people going by. You must be very tired.'

"'Not in the least, mamma, dear,' answered Miss Pert. 'I like to
work, and there is nothing interesting going on outside.'

"I tossed and sighed, and she was by me in a second.

"'Darling mamma! my poor, sweet little mother!' in her reed-like
chirp; 'can I do nothing to make you feel better?' putting her hands
upon my head and stroking my face until my flesh crawled.

"'Yes,' said I, out of all patience. 'Take yourself off, and don't
let me see you again until to-morrow morning! You kill me with your
teasing.'

"And would you believe it? she just put up her sewing in the basket
and went directly out, without a tear or a murmur, and when her
father came home he could not prevail upon her, by commands or
persuasions, to accompany him further than the door of my chamber.
So he, who won't admit that she can do anything wrong, instead of
whipping her for her obstinacy, as he ought to have done, guessed
she 'had some reason' for her disobedience which she did not like to
tell, and interrogated poor, persecuted me. When he had heard my
version of the manner in which we had spent the afternoon, he only
said, 'I should have foreseen this. But the child--she is only a
child, Rosa!--did her best!' and he looked so mournful that I,
knowing he blamed me for his bantling's freak of temper, told him
plainly that he cared a thousand times more for this diminutive
bundle of hypocrisy than he ever did for me, and that his absurd
favoritism was fast begetting in me a positive dislike for her. I
couldn't endure the sight of the sulky little mischief-maker for a
week after her complaint of barbarity had brought the look into his
face I knew so well."

"O Rosa, she is your own flesh and blood! and, as her father said, a
mere baby yet! You said, too, that she refused to assign any cause
to him for her singular conduct."

"She might better have made open outcry than have left upon his mind
the impression that I had banished her cruelly and unnecessarily.
But I despair of giving you an idea of how provoking she can be. She
is a Chilton, through and through, in feature, manner, and
disposition--one of those 'goody' children, you know! a class of
animals that are simply intolerable to me. She is too precocious and
unbaby-like to be in the least interesting. You should have seen my
little Violet to understand what a constant disappointment Florence
is. She was myself in miniature, and moreover the most witching,
prankish, peppery elf that was ever made. The best trait in
Florence's character was her love for her baby-sister. She gave up
everything to her while she was alive, and they told me that she
would not eat, and scarcely slept, for days after her death. Her
father will have it that she is singularly sensitive, and has
marvellous depths of feeling; but if this be so, it is queer I never
found it out. Nobody could help adoring Violet--my aweet, lost,
beautiful angel!"

The hysterical sobs were pumping up the tears now in hot torrents,
and these Mrs. Sutton was fain to assuage by loving arts she would
not--but for the danger of allowing them to flow--have been in the
temper to employ, so full was her heart of yearning pity for the
hardly-used babe, and displeasure at the mother's weak selfishness.
It was easier to forgive and forget Rosa's sins; to lessen, in the
retrospect, her worst faults into foibles, than it would have been
to overlook the more venal failings of one less mercurial, and whose
personal fascinations did not equal hers.

Ere the close of another day, Mrs. Sutton had excused her unnatural
insensibility to her child's virtues and affection, by representing
to herself how fearfully disease had warped judgment and perception;
had cast over the enormities she could not palliate the pall of
solemn remembrance of the truth that death's dark door was already
as surely shut between mother and daughter, as if the grave held the
former. A week of chill March rains and wind was disastrous to the
patient, who had seemed to draw her main supplies of strength from
the sunshine admitted freely to her room, with the spring air,
redolent with the delicious odors of the freshly-turned earth, the
budding trees, and early blossoms from the garden heneath her
windows. She shrank and shivered under the ungenial sky, while the
drizzling mist soaked life and animation out of the fragile body.
Occasional fits of delirium, increased difficulty of breathing, and
a steady decline of the slender remains of vital force, warned her
attendants that their care would not be required much longer. She
was still obstinate in her disbelief of the grave nature of her
malady. The most distant reference to her decease would arouse her
to angry refutation of the hinted doubt of her recovery, and excited
her to offer proof of her declaration that she was less ill than
others supposed; she would summon up a poor counterfeit of energy
and mirth, more ghastly than her previous lassitude; deny that she
suffered from any cause, save the unfailing nervous depression
consequent upon the unfavorable weather.

Then came a day on which the sun looked forth with augmented
splendor from his sombrely curtained pavilion; when the naked
branches of the deciduous trees, the serried lances of the
evergreens, and the broad leaves of the tent-like magnolias--the
pride of the Tazewell place--shone as from a bath of molten silver.
The battered flowers ventured into later and healthier bloom, and a
robin, swinging upon the lilac spray nearest Rosa's window, sang
blithe greeting to the reinstated spring.

Rosa heard him--opened her eyes, and smiled.

"One--maybe the very same--used to sing there every morning when I
was a girl--used to awake me from my second nap. I could sleep all
night then, and never dream once!"

A messenger had been sent, at daybreak, for her sisters and brother,
who resided several miles away, but as yet Mrs. Sutton and Frederic
were her only nurses. She had dozed almost constantly during the
night, and been delirious when awakened to take nourishment or
tonics, muttering senseless and disconnected words, and moaning in
pain, the location and nature of which she could not describe to the
solicitous watchers.

"I remember that Mabel and I," she continued, dreamily, after a long
pause--then correcting herself, "I ask your pardon, Frederic! I said
I wouldn't speak of her ever again to you, but we were so much
together in those days. Moreover, it has troubled me at times, that
you did not know who your real friends were, and she did like
you--and--and--what am I saying! You shouldn't let me run on so!"

She raised her hand with difficulty, and tried to wipe away the film
gathering over her dilated eyes.

"Never mind, my darling! Do not attempt to talk! You are too weak
and tired!" said her husband, tenderly.

"Tired!" catching at the word, "That is it! There is nothing else
the matter, whatever Dr. Ritchie and the rest of them may say.
Tired! for how many years I have been THAT! It seems like a
thousand. This world is a tiresome place to most people, I think I
shall never forget how jaded Mabel looked that week," breaking off,
as before, with a frightened start, such as a dreamer gives when he
fancies he is falling from an immeasurable height. "Indeed, Fred,
dear!" feeling for his hand upon the coverlet, "I did not mean to
wound or offend you. It was a terrible ordeal for you, my love! But
you came out of it as silver seven times refined. That is what the
text says--isn't it? And you and Aunt Rachel are friends once more!
That is one good deed I have done. I hope it will be recorded up
THERE! Heaven knows there are not so many that I can afford to have
one overlooked!"

Another season of dozing, and she awoke, rubbing her hands feebly
together, as to cleanse them.

"My hands ought to be whiter--purer! I know what ails them. I should
have picked up the letter she--Mrs. Sutton--wrote you. But I loved
you so--even then!" beseechingly. "You will not hate me when I am
gone? I mean when you get back to Philadelphia, and I am well enough
to be left here. I was sure, if you got it, you would come to
Ridgeley, and I let it go down the stream--down--down! Frederic!"

"I am here, dearest!" slipping his arm under, and raising her, as
her shrill cry rang out, and she grasped the empty air. "Rosa, my
WIFE!"

"I thought I was strangling--in the water! I am your wife--am I not?
She couldn't take you from me if she were here. I wish she were! I
always liked Mabel. She was a good, true woman--but she did not love
you as I did!"

Panting for breath, she leaned upon her husband's breast, and her
eyelids fell together again. Only for a moment! Then a smile--fond,
sweet, and penitent--played among the ashy shadows encircling her
mouth. "Poor little Florence! I am sorry I was cross to her. Tell
her so, papa!" Her husband stooped to kiss her, laid her back upon
the pillows, closed the sightless eyes, and left Mrs. Sutton alone
with the dead.

CHAPTER XVII.

AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS.

"OLD Mrs. Tazewell has departed this life at last!" said Winston
Aylett, entering his own parlor one bleak November evening on his
return from the village post-office. "I met Al. Branch on the road
just now. For a wonder he was sober--in honor of the occasion, I
suppose. He and Gus. Tabb are to sit up with the corpse to-night."

"When did she die?" queried his wife, drawing her skirts aside, that
he might get nearer the fire.

"At twelve o'clock to-day. That is, she ceased the unprofitable
business of respiration at that hour. She died, virtually, five
years ago. She has been little better than a mummy for that period."

"Poor old lady!" said Mabel Dorrance, regretfully, from her corner
of the hearth. "Hers was a kind heart, while she could think and act
intelligently. One of my earliest recollections is of the dainties
with which she used to ply me when I visited Rosa. She was an
indulgent parent and mistress, yet I suppose few even of those most
nearly related to her will mourn her loss."

"It would be very foolish if they did!" Mr. Aylett picked up the
tongs to mend the fire. "And very unnatural did they not rejoice at
being rid of a burden. The old place has been going to destruction
all these years, and it could not be sold while she cumbered the
upper earth."

No one replied directly to this delicate and feeling observation,
and Mrs. Aylett presently diverted the conversation slightly by
saying,--

"And Alfred Branch has gone to tender his services to the family!
There is something romantic in his constancy to a memory. From the
day of Rosa's death, he has embraced every chance of testifying his
respect for and wish to serve her friends. He is a sadder wreck than
was Mrs. Tazewell. You would hardly recognize him, Mabel. His hair
and beard are white as those of a man of sixty-five, and his face
bloated out of all comeliness."

"White heat!" interjected Mr. Aylett. "He can not last much longer."

"And all because a pretty girl said him 'Nay!'" pursued the wife.

Mr. Aylett and Mr. Dorrance made characteristic responses in a
breath.

"The greater blockhead he!" said one.

The other, "His was never a rightly balanced mind, I suspect. I
always thought him weak and impressionable."

"Are your adjectives synonymous?" asked Mrs. Aylett playfully.

"Generally!"

Her brother had been reading at a distant window, while the daylight
sufficed to show him the type of his book. He now laid it by, and
came forward into the redder circle of radiance cast by the burning
logs. He was in his forty-third year, saturnine of visage, coldly
monotonous in accent, a business machine that did its work in good,
substantial style, and undertook no "fancy jobs." He had amassed a
handsome fortune, built a handsome house, and married a handsome
woman, all of which appendages to his consequence he contemplated
with grim complacency. As regarded spiritual likeness, mutual
affection, and assimilation of feeling and opinion, he and his wife
had receded, the one from the other, in the fourteen years of their
wedded life. There had been no decided rupture. Both disliked
altercations, and where radical opposition of sentiment existed,
they avoided the unsafe ground by tacit consent. Mabel's uniform
policy was that of outward submission to the mandates of her chief.

"After all, it makes little difference!" she fell into the habit of
saying in the earlier years of matronhood, and he interpreted her
listless acquiescence in his decrees as faith in the soundness of
his judgment, the infallibility of his decisions. No woman of sense
and spirit ever becomes an exemplar in unquestioning obedience to a
mortal man, unless through apathy--fatal torpor of mind or heart.
Of this fact in moral history our respactable barrister was happily
ignorant. He was no better versed in the lore of the heart feminine
than when he accepted Mabel Aylett's esteem and friendly regard in
lieu of the shy, but ardent attachment a betrothed maiden should
have for the one she means to make her husband.

He respected her thoroughly, and loved her better than he did
anybody else. She was the one woman he recognized as his sister's
superior--supremacy due to the influence of single-minded integrity
and modest dignity. What Mabel said, he believed without gainsaying;
while Clara's clever dicta required winnowing to separate the
probably spurious from the possibly true. If his tone, in addressing
his wife, was seldom affectionate, it was never careless, as that
which replied to his sister's raillery.

"Generally," he said in his metallic, unmodulated voice. "The man
who would cast away health, usefulness, and fortune in his chagrin
at not winning the hand of a shallow-pated, volatile flirt, must be
both silly and susceptible."

"Rosa Tazewell may have been shallow of heart, but she was not of
pate," answered Mr. Aylett, with a cold sneer. "She was a fair
plotter, and not fickle of purpose when she had her desires upon a
much-coveted object. Her marriage proved that. She meant to
captivate Chilton before she had known him a month--yes, and to
marry him, as she finally did. Her intermediate conquests were but
the practice that was to perfect her in her profession. Does anybody
know, by the way, if he has ever taken a second wife to his bereaved
bosom?"

A brief silence, then Mrs. Aylett said, negligently, "I think not.
Mrs. Trent, Rosa's sister, was expatiating to me a month since upon
the beauty and accomplishments of his daughter, and she said nothing
of a step-mother. Father and child live with a married sister of
Mrs. Chilton, I believe."

"I had not heard that Rosa left a child," remarked Mabel,
interested. "I understood that two died before the mother."

"Only one--and that the younger. Miss Florence is now twelve years
old, Mrs. Trent says. I saw her at church once, when she was
visiting her grandmother and aunts. She is really passable--but very
unlike her mother."

Mabel did not join in the desultory talk that engaged the others
until supper-time. There was a broken string in her heart, that
jangled painfully when touched by an incautious hand.

"Twelve years old!" she was saying, inwardly. "My darling would have
been thirteen, had she lived!"

And then flitted before her fancy a girlish form, with pure, loving
eyes, and a voice melodious as a mocking-bird's. Warm arms were
about her neck, and a round, soft cheek laid against hers--as no
human arms and face would ever caress her--her, the childless, whose
had been the hopes, fears, pains--never the recompence of maternity.

She had been to the graveyard that day--secretly, lest her husband
should frown, Clara wonder, and Winston sneer at her love for and
memory of that which had never existed, according to their rendering
of the term. She had trimmed the wire-grass out of the little
hollow, above which the mound had not been renewed since the day of
her baby's burial, and, trusting to the infrequency of others'
visits to the neglected enclosure, had laid a bunch of white
rose-buds over the unmarked dust she accounted still a part of her
heart, 'neath which it had lain so long. People said she had never
been a mother; never had had a living child; had no hope of seeing
it in heaven. God and she knew better.

"Clara, I wish you to attend Mrs. Tazewell's funeral this
afternoon," said Mr. Aylett at breakfast the next day but one after
this. "There were invidious remarks made upon your non-appearance at
her daughter's, and I do not choose that my family shall furnish
food for neighborhood scandal."

"My dear Winston, you must recollect what an insufferable headache I
had that day."

"Don't have one to-day," ordered her husband laconically. "Mabel, do
you care to go?"

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