Produced by Distributed Proofreaders
By Mrs. Georgie Sheldon
Author of “Nora,” “Trixy,”
“Earle Wayne’s Nobility,”
“A True Aristocrat,” Etc.
Copyright, 1887, 1888, 1891
By Street & Smith
Virgie and the Benighted Traveler.
“Virgie, I shall have to give up the race.”
“My strength is failing rapidly. It was all that I could do to creep home to-night. My trembling limbs, my labored breathing, and this dreadful cough, all warn me that I must set my house in order, and make provision for your future.”
It was an apparently old man who spoke thus, and yet the years of his life numbered but a little over fifty.
His hair was silvery white; his face was colorless and haggard, his eyes dim and sunken, and his form was much attenuated and bowed by the disease which was fast consuming him.
He was sitting by a blazing fire, in an ordinary easy-chair over which a heavy coverlid had been thrown to make it more comfortable; but he shivered, and hovered over the blaze, as if he were chilled to the very marrow, while the hands which he held extended to catch the warmth were livid, and trembling from weakness.
The room was small, but cozy and home-like. A cheap, coarse carpet, though of a bright and tasteful pattern, lay upon the floor. An oval table, covered with a daintily embroidered cloth, stood in the center. There was a pretty lamp, with a bright Japanese shade upon it. There were also a few books in choice bindings, and a dainty work-basket filled with implements for sewing. A few pictures–some done with pen and ink, others in crayon, but all showing great talent and nicety of execution–hung, in simple frames, upon the walls. The two windows of the apartment were screened by pretty curtains of spotless muslin over heavier hangings of crimson, while a lounge and two or three chairs completed the furnishing of the room.
Beside the table, in a low rocker, several paces from the invalid by the fire, yet where she could catch every expression of his pale, sad face, there sat a young girl, with a piece of fancy work in her hands, upon which she had been busily engaged before her father spoke.
She was perhaps twenty years of age, with a straight, perfect form, and a face that would have better graced a a palace than the humble mountain home where she now abode. It was a pure, oval, with delicate, beautiful brows; soft, round cheeks, in which a lovely pink came and went with every emotion. Her eyes were of a deep violet color, shaded by dark silken lashes, though their expression was saddened somewhat just now by a look of care and anxiety. Her white forehead was surmounted by rich chestnut-brown hair, which was gathered into a graceful knot at the back of her finely shaped head. A straight, patrician nose; a small, but rather resolute mouth, and a rounded chin, in which there was a bewitching dimple; small, lady-like hands and feet, completed the tout ensemble of
Virginia Abbot, the daughter and only child of a whilom honored and wealthy bank president of San Francisco.
When addressed, as recorded above, the beautiful girl had started and grown suddenly pale, and a look of keenest pain shot into her violet eyes.
Then her sweet mouth straightened itself into a stern, resolute line. There was a moment of solemn silence, which she broke, by saying, in a repressed but gentle tone:
“I am sorry that you are feeling worse than usual to-night, papa. I know you must be weary. You are always that after being all day in the mine, and the storm, of course, aggravates your cough; but if you will rest a few days you will surely be better.”
“No, Virgie, it is useless to build upon false hopes. I shall never be any better. My work is done. I shall go no more to my claim, and I have decided to dispose of it to the first one who will offer me a fair price for it. But, dear child, if it were not for you I believe I should be glad to know that my saddened life is almost at an end. I—-“
The weary voice quivered and failed here, and the man sank back in his chair with a bitter sigh.
The young girl, her own face now blanched to the hue of death, laid down her work, arose, and moved swiftly to her father’s side, where she knelt by his chair.
“Papa, do not talk so. You must not leave me,” she cried, in a voice of agony. “I cannot spare you. There must be something to help you–to build up your strength. Let us go back home, where you can have the best medical advice.”
The man sat up in his chair, stopping her with a gesture almost of despair.
“Home!” he cried, hoarsely. “Virgie, we have no home but this. You know that I am already the same as dead to every one but you; that even our real name is sunk in oblivion.”
“But, papa, you must try to live for my sake,” Virgie cried, clasping her trembling hands about his emaciated arm, and shuddering as she felt how frail it was. “If you will not go back, let me at least send for Dr. Truel. He is skillful. He was always our friend. He will cheer you and give you something to build you up, and he will keep our secret, too. Oh, you ought to have had advice long ago. What shall I do in this dreary place if you leave me alone?”
The sick man unclasped her clinging hands from his arm, and drew her slight form to him in a tender embrace.
“My darling,” he said, fondly, “that is just what I wish to talk with you about; so calm yourself and listen to me. Neither Dr. Truel, nor any other doctor, can help me now; if I had called him a year ago he might have prolonged my life; but my pride would not let me face any one whom I had ever known. But I will not speak of the past; it is too familiar and painful to both of us. It is useless, however, for me to think for a moment of going back, even to die, in the home where we were once so happy, for only disgrace is connected with our name–disgrace and wrong, all the more keenly felt because unmerited.”
“Hush, Virgie!” he continued, as a shuddering sob burst from the breast pressed so closely to his, “you must not give way so. I did not mean to alarm you unnecessarily by what I have said; I may not leave you for some time yet. I may be spared for a few months, perhaps until autumn, but I feel that the time has come to arrange some definite plan for your future. I must, however, give up my work, for I have no longer strength to carry it on; but if there was only some one whom I could trust to take charge of my claim. I might even yet reap something of benefit from it to add to the hoard that I have been saving for you against this emergency.”
“But, papa, I would much rather that you should spend every dollar that you have, if it would prolong your life; if I lose you, I have not a friend in the world.”
The man heaved a heavy sigh, for too well he realized the truth of her words.
“My dear,” he returned, with tender pathos, “if it were possible for me to regain my health, at any sacrifice, I would gladly make it for your sake. But I know that it cannot be, and my care now must be to make the best provision that I can for you.”
“I have been very successful since coming here,” he went on, speaking more cheerfully, “more so than I ever dared to hope, and the claim promises much for the future and ought to bring a good price if sold; so you will have quite a snug little fortune, my Virgie, and I trust that your lot in life will yet be happy, in spite of the dark cloud that has so shadowed it in the beginning. What say you to writing to my old friend, Laurence Bancroft, of New York, confiding you to his care after—-“
“Oh, my father, you make me utterly wretched,” cried the young girl, reaching up her arms and clasping them convulsively about his neck, while she lifted her tear-stained face appealingly to him.
He bent forward and kissed her white forehead softly with his trembling lips.
“Bear with me a little longer, my daughter, and then we will never mention this again while I live,” he returned, huskily. “Laurence Bancroft, as you know, was a dear friend of my early life. He has a cultivated wife, and two daughters about your own age; he will believe me when I tell him the truth regarding our misfortunes, and will, no doubt, give you a home in his own family, and care for your interests until–woman’s best gift–the love of some true man comes to you, and you have a home of your own. New York is almost on the other side of the world, and no evil breath of the past will be likely to touch you there. What do you say, Virgie?–may I write to my friend, giving you to his care?”
“Yes, papa,” Virgie said, wearily assenting to his project, more to put an end to the painful conversation than because she had any choice in the matter, “you may do whatever your judgment tells you is best, and I will be guided entirely by your wishes.”
Mr. Abbot looked intensely relieved.
This question had troubled him for many months, and he had always shrunk from speaking of it, because of the pain which he knew it would inflict. With this vital matter settled, he felt that he could give up all care, and spend the few remaining days of his life in peace with his idolized child, and calmly await the end, which he knew was so near.
“That is right, dear,” he said, with a contented smile. “I am greatly comforted. I will write a full account of everything, together with my wishes for your future, and it will be ready to be sent to Mr. Bancroft at a moment’s warning. I do not care to have him know anything about us just yet; hark! what was that?” he broke off abruptly, and started into a listening attitude.
“Only the wind and the storm beating against the house, I think,” answered Virgie, lifting her head, and calmed for the moment as she, too, listened to what had seemed an unusual noise.
“It is a wild night, my child. I hope no one is homeless in this storm,” said Mr. Abbot. “I am thankful for this peaceful, though humble refuge, after the turmoil and wrong of a few years ago, only it is hard for you to be so shut away and isolated from those of your own age. But surely that was a knock, Virgie.”
The young girl started to her feet as a loud and imperative rap echoed through the small entry outside the parlor.
It was seldom that they were disturbed at that hour of the evening, for among the hard working people of the mining district in which they lived, there were few who were not early wrapped in slumber after the labors of the day.
Virgie passed quickly out of the cheerful parlor into the tiny hall, and opened the outer door, though the heavy burglar chain was fastened and would admit of its being opened but a little ways.
“Who is there?” she asked, in her clear, sweet tones.
“A stranger who has lost his way and seeks direction to the nearest public inn,” answered a rich, mellow voice from without.
Mr. Abbot now came out, a heavy shawl wrapped about his shoulders to shield him from the dampness.
“It is more than a mile from here, and a very poor place at that,” he said.
The stranger outside gave a low whistle of dismay at this information, and muttered something about being in “a very uncomfortable fix.”
Mr. Abbot unfastened the chain, threw wide the door, and invited the unknown to come in out of the storm.
“Thanks,” was the courteous response; “but I will not trespass upon your hospitality if you will kindly direct me to the inn of which you speak. The darkness came on so suddenly that I lost my way. I left Oreana at noon to go to Humboldt, but my horse sprained his foot on the rough mountain road, and I have had to come at a snail’s pace ever since.”
“You are sadly out of your way, indeed, if you are going to Humboldt, for it is a good ten miles from here. Come in–come in out of the pouring rain, and we will discuss what will be best for you to do,” returned his host, in a hearty tone, for he was won by the man’s frankness and courtesy.
The stranger stepped, dripping, into the hall, a tall, straight figure, booted and spurred, and enveloped in waterproof jacket, trousers, and havelock.
“Thanks,” he said, “you are very kind; but allow me to introduce myself; my name is Heath–William Heath, at your service.”
“Then, Mr. Heath, come to my fireside and dry and warm yourself; my name is Abbot and this is my daughter,” replied Mr. Abbot, leading the way into the cheerful parlor whither Virgie had retired when her father opened the door to the benighted wayfarer.
Mr. Heath bowed with all the polish that could have been expected of him had he been in a royal drawing-room instead of a rude cottage in a ruder mining district of the mountains of Nevada, while his dark eyes flashed with a look of admiration over the perfect figure and into the lovely face of his host’s daughter.
He removed his hat and havelock, revealing a grand head covered with waving brown hair, and a handsome face all aglow with intelligence. His eyes were a dark, wine-brown, his glance as keen and straight as an eagle’s, his manner and bearing betraying that he was accustomed to mingle with people of culture and refinement.
The Stranger Welcomed.
Virginia Abbot simply inclined her regal head in returning the stranger’s greeting; then taking up her work again, she sat down by the table, with her back toward the fire and the newcomer. She had not failed to notice his look of surprised admiration when introduced to her, and it had affected her strangely.
Five years previous Mr. Abbot and his young daughter had come to that wild region entire strangers–the former, a man of gentlemanly bearing, somewhat past his prime; the latter a wondrously beautiful girl of fifteen, just budding into womanhood, and with a dignity of mien and refinement of speech which, together with her beauty, caused the uncouth inhabitants of the place to regard her with something of awe, and as if they thought she belonged to an entirely different sphere from them.
Mr. Abbot owned a claim in the gold and silver region there, which he asserted that he was going to work himself, much to the surprise of the rough miners, for he was a frail looking man.
He built a small but very convenient house, containing five rooms, which, with the few elegancies he had brought with him, for his child’s sake, and which proclaimed that the strangers had been accustomed to the luxuries of life heretofore, became the pride and wonder of the settlement.
The house was painted inside and out; there were carpets upon the floors, draperies at the windows, vases and ornaments on the mantels, pictures on the walls. But though all the furnishings were of the simplest and cheapest, yet, to the rude and unaccustomed people about them, their home seemed a veritable palace.
Another mystery and evidence of superiority was the grave and self-contained Chinaman who came with them, and was installed as cook and servant in general in the small kitchen, and who waited upon the young lady of the house with so much respect and deference.
Here the father and daughter lived in the utmost seclusion. Virgie never was seen outside her home unless accompanied by her father or servant, and Mr. Abbot, when not in the mine, devoted himself wholly to his child.
They made no friends, and did not mingle at all with those about them, although they were always kind and courteous to every one, and thus won the respect of every man, woman and child in the hamlet. Mr. Abbot had the appearance of being much broken in spirit; his countenance wore a look of habitual sadness, and his abundant hair, so prematurely whitened, plainly told that some heavy trouble had overtaken him in the past. Nothing could be learned of their antecedents, where they had lived, or why they were there, though Chi Lu, the servant, was often plied with questions by the curious, and thus they were regarded as a trio of very mysterious personages.
After a year or so, it began to be whispered about that “the governor,” as Mr. Abbot was called, because of the respect in which he was held, had “struck it rich,” in other words, that his claim was proving an unusually fruitful one, and he was making money rapidly. How this came to be known it would be hard to say, for he was very uncommunicative, going and coming to and from his work quietly and unostentatiously, and living in the simplest manner.
As time passed, Virginia Abbot grew even more beautiful than she was when she had first come to her mountain home. The bracing air agreed with her, her health was perfect, while her simple manner of living and her regular habits were calculated to develop to the utmost every charm, and keep her strong, and fresh, and beautiful.
Her mind was not allowed to lie dormant, however, for her father attended most carefully and faithfully to her education, and not only insisted upon a regular and thorough course of study, but kept her well provided with the literature of the times, embracing many new books and various papers and periodicals.
But for more than a year past, Mr. Abbot’s health had been failing. The change, however, was so gradual that Virgie did not observe it until the disease had fastened itself so firmly upon him that he was beyond all human aid. The man himself fought against it for months, striving to prolong his life for the sake of his idolized daughter, although, personally, the world had no longer any charms for him; but it never relaxed its fatal hold, and at last, at the time of the opening of our story, he felt that the time had come for him to give up labor and lay down all burdens, for he knew that his days were numbered.
The question of providing a home and protection for Virgie had long agitated his mind.
They had no relations or friends to whom he could confide her. There were reasons why he was unwilling to appoint a guardian and send her back to their former home, and so, at last, he resolved to commit her to the care of his early friend and college mate, Laurence Bancroft, a wealthy merchant of New York city.
But the matter was to be taken entirely out of his hands, and the beautiful girl’s destiny settled in a way wholly unexpected by either father or daughter.
* * * * *
When Mr. Heath, the benighted and storm-delayed traveler, threw back his dripping coat, and seated himself at the invitation of his host, before the blazing fire, Mr. Abbot thought that he had seldom seen a more attractive young man.
He was apparently about twenty-five years of age. His dark eyer were full of intelligence, and fringed with long silken lashes. His features were clear cut, as if they had been chiseled in marble. A dark brown moustache shaded, but did not conceal, a sensitive mouth, from which there flashed the gleam of brilliant teeth whenever he spoke or smiled; his nose was well formed, and his smooth, rather massive chin betrayed strength of purpose and decision of character.
His address was very courteous, even fascinating, and his voice possessed a rich, mellow tone, with a sympathetic ring in it, to which it was a delight to listen, and which won at once upon the hearts and confidence of his entertainers.
“You are unfortunate to be obliged to traverse our rough mountain roads on such a night as this,” Mr. Abbot observed, with a shiver, as he drew nearer the fire, and laid another heavy oaken stick across the glowing blaze.
“That is true, sir,” responded his guest, yet the glance, which he involuntarily shot at Virgie, bending gracefully over her work, did not betray an overwhelming sense of his misfortune.
“I Am On My Way To Join A Party Of Sportsmen At Humboldt,” He Continued. “I Was Detained At Virginia City Upon A Matter Of Business, And They Went On Before, Promising To Wait There For Me Until To-Morrow Evening.”
“Are you traveling on horseback?” Mr. Abbot asked, with some surprise.
“No, sir; but the train on which I started met with an accident this morning, which was liable to detain it several hours, and being impatient of the delay, I procured a horse at Oreana, thinking I could easily reach Humboldt by evening, when I could return it by rail. But the unfortunate beast sprained his foot on a rolling stone, as I have already told you; the storm and darkness overtook me, I lost my way, and my courage was just about failing, when I espied the friendly lights of this settlement, and I resolved to stop at the first house I came to and ask where I could find shelter for the night.”
Mr. Abbot had been studying the young man’s face attentively during this explanation.
He liked his appearance exceedingly; his countenance was honest and true, his story straightforward and well told, and some unaccountable impulse prompted him to take measures to become better acquainted with him.
“If you are going to Humboldt, you should have taken the turn to your left five miles back on the mountain,” he said. “It would be impossible for you to reach it to-night, even if you could be set right, for you would be sure to lose your way again in the darkness. The only public house–if you can call it such–in this region, is at least a mile from here, and far from inviting or comfortable at that; so allow me, Mr. Heath, to offer you the hospitality of our home for the night, and to-morrow you can start afresh and refreshed upon your way.”
The young man looked up with a glance of surprise, while a quick flush mounted to his brow, at this unexpected and rather extraordinary offer, for he well knew that in a mining district all strangers are regarded with suspicion if not with positive dislike.
“Sir, you are very kind,” he began, casting another glance toward the lovely maiden by the table, for he had seen her give a quick start at her father’s invitation, “but I fear I should trespass beyond all bounds were I to accept your offer.”
“No, indeed,” returned Mr. Abbot, with more of eagerness in his manner than he was in the habit of betraying over anything. “I could not think of allowing you to go on in this driving storm, and we can arrange it very comfortably can we not, Virgie?” turning toward her.
“Yes, sir,” was the low though unhesitating reply.
“But I am an entire stranger to you. How dare you take me into your household? How do you know but that I am a robber or a brigand in disguise?” queried Mr. Heath, with a twinkle in his fine eyes. But still he was strongly tempted to accept the friendly offer, not only on account of the comfort surrounding him, but because he was attracted by the cultivated gentleman and his charming daughter, both of whom were a great surprise to him, finding them as he had in that wild region.
“Nay,” responded Mr. Abbot, smiling, yet meeting the frank eyes of his guest steadily, “I think I can vouch for your character as a gentleman even though you are an utter stranger. Remove your wet garments, I pray, and make yourself comfortable for the night.”
“But my horse,” began Mr. Heath, suddenly bethinking himself of the dripping and suffering animal.
“True. Pardon my thoughtlessness,” returned his host, adding, “There is a small shed attached to our dwelling where he can at least be sheltered. Virgie, please go and send Chi Lu to assist Mr. Heath.”
Virgie immediately arose and left the room, and soon after a diminutive Chinaman appeared in the doorway, bearing a lighted lantern, and signifying his readiness to “puttee up te hossee.”
Mr. Heath left the house with him, and both were gone some time, attending to the animal’s injured leg and trying to make him as comfortable as circumstances would allow.
During their absence Virgie, at the suggestion of her father, busied herself in arranging a supper for the storm-beaten traveler, who upon his return was greeted by the fumes of steaming coffee, while an appetizing array of cold meats and other viands was spread upon the table, which had been drawn up before the fire.
“I fear Miss Abbot is making herself trouble on my account,” Mr. Heath remarked, with a swift and grateful glance at the graceful form and flushed face that was bending over the glowing coals, where the young girl was toasting to a delicate brown a slice from a wheaten loaf.
“No, indeed; it is no trouble; and a meal after your long ride in the rain will not come amiss,” Virgie answered, looking up and meeting his fine eyes for an instant.
She deposited the bread upon a plate, and inviting the young man to be seated, poured with her own hands a cup of fragrant coffee, which she placed before him.
She continued to wait upon him with exquisite ease and grace until his hunger was appeased, which was not soon, for it was a rare pleasure for him to watch her beautiful and expressive face while he chatted with her father, sipped his coffee, and ate his toast.
But he finished at length, and then Chi Lu was summoned the table cleared, and the room restored to its usual order.
Mr. Abbot seldom had met a real gentleman since coming among the mountains; he had lived chiefly within himself and for his child. But now he found that he had not lost all interest in the outside world, and he enjoyed immensely Mr. Heath’s account of his travels, and his descriptions of men and things.
Virgie had not seen her father so bright and animated in all the five years of their secluded life, and she began to hope that his fears regarding his failing health were groundless after all. She, too, enjoyed the young stranger’s conversation, although she did not join in it. She sat by, with her dainty embroidery in her hands, listening, and showing by her expressive face and shining eyes how rare a pleasure such congenial society was to her.
But by and by she stole away to her own room, where she lay far into the night thinking of the handsome stranger–of his eager yet respectful glances when he looked at her; of the low, rich cadence of his voice when he spoke to her, and feeling that she should miss him more than she had ever yet missed anyone during the last five years, when he should go away on the morrow.
The two men talked some time longer after Virgie left; the Chi Lu was called again, the pretty lounge was converted into a comfortable bed, and Mr. Heath was told that the parlor was at his service for the night.
The young man was very thankful for the hearty hospitality of which he had been the recipient, and felt that he had been extremely fortunate in finding such a pleasant abiding-place; but, although he was very weary from his rough and tedious ride over the mountain, he found that slumber was hard to woo, and he, too, lay awake for long hours, wondering over the strange experience of the evening, and what hard fate–for hard he felt sure it must have been–could have driven a cultivated gentleman like Mr. Abbot, and his peerless daughter, who was so well fitted to shine in the most brilliant circles of the world, away from the haunts of civilization into that wilderness, and among the rude, uncultured, uncongenial people of a mining region.
Mr. Heath Talks of Becoming a Miner.
The next morning broke fair and beautiful.
Every trace of the storm had passed away, save that the dust was laid and all nature looked fresher and brighter for the copious bath it had received.
Virgie Abbot, despite her sleeplessness during the first half of the night, was up at an early hour, superintending breakfast for her father and their guest.
If she had been lovely the previous evening she was doubly so now in her pretty flannel wrapper–for the mornings were chilly in that region, even in the summer The wrapper was of a light blue tint, wonderfully becoming to her delicate complexion, and harmonized well with her eyes and the dainty pink in her cheeks.
Her face wore a brighter, more eager look, than was its wont, this morning, and she was full of life and energy that was born of her youth and sunny, hopeful temperament.
The incidents of the previous evening had been a pleasant break in her hitherto monotonous life, and she was now looking forward, with no small degree of interest, to meeting by daylight the handsome stranger who had taken refuge with them.
During all the years that she had been in that rude place she had not seen one real gentleman, excepting her father; they had never before entertained a visitor, and there had been nothing but her reading and studies, her drawing and fancy work, to vary the quiet, almost dull uniformity of her existence.
Mr. Abbot himself looked brighter and better as he came out from his chamber and gave Virgie his usual morning greeting and caress.
This visit had evidently done him good also, and Virgie took “heart of grace” from the fact, and put aside, for the time at least, the anxious fears that had so burdened her the night before.
Breakfast was served in the simple but clean and cheerful kitchen which led from the parlor, while the small table, laid for three, had almost an air of elegance, with its spotless cloth, its few pieces of silver, china, and cut glass, relics of former glory, and the tiny vase of flowers, with the dew and rain still on them, which Virgie had gathered from the edge of the cliff near by.
Mr. Heath’s glance expressed something of surprise as it swiftly took in these appointments; but to him the fairest sight of all was the slim but perfect figure of the young girl who sat at the head of the table, and poured his coffee, and waited upon him with all the ease and self-possession of one who had been long accustomed to the formalities and etiquette of high life.
The young man wondered at it. There was no other woman in the house, nor had been since they came there, for Mr. Abbot had mentioned that he lost his wife more than six years ago; but this girl was a perfect little hostess, and dainty, to the last degree, in her person. Her hands were white and delicate, the pretty pink nails without a blemish; her hair soft and silken, showing a careful wielding of the brush; her linen collar and cuffs were immaculate, her handkerchief white as snow, and fine and sheer, while everything about her bespoke lady-like refinement and a high regard for nicety of toilet.
He could hardly keep his eyes off her, she was so fair a picture; but once or twice she had looked up and caught his glance, flushed, and fearing to embarrass her, he turned resolutely to his host and opened a subject upon which he had been thinking quite, seriously.
“I understood you to say last evening, I believe, sir, that you were desirous of disposing of your claim,” he remarked.
“Yes; my health is too poor to admit of my working it any longer, and I should be glad to dispose of it to the right person,” Mr. Abbot replied.
“I think I know of some one who would like it, if it is still a promising one,” the young man said, but a conscious color flushed his cheek slightly as he felt Virgie’s eyes turned upon him.
“I honestly believe that it is richer to-day than when I began to work it,” Mr. Abbot asserted confidently. “However,” he added, “I do not ask you to take my word for it. If you know a party who would like to purchase, tell him to bring an expert and examine for himself; and even then if he is not satisfied to buy outright, he may work it upon shares until he is convinced of its value.”
“That is fair, I am sure,” said Mr. Heath.
“Perhaps you would like to take a look at it before you go?” suggested his host, who was eager to dispose of his property.
“I would, I assure you,” was the reply; “but there is hardly time this morning, for I feel that I must join my party immediately, else they will be anxious regarding my safety. We are bound upon an excursion through the northern portion of the State, and intend to be absent a week or more; but after that, if you will permit me, I will return here and investigate matters–that is, if you will give me the refusal of the claim until then.”
As the young man said this, his glance involuntarily wandered again to the beautiful face of Virgie.
There must have been something magnetic in his gaze, for she raised her white lids just then, and met the earnest, wistful look bent upon her.
A flush leaped to her cheek, and her violet eyes dropped instantly upon her plate again, while her heart fluttered like a caged wild bird.
“I will gladly wait your time, Mr. Heath,” Mr. Abbot responded, in a satisfied tone. “I begin to think that your losing your way and falling to our care last evening was providential.”
“I have no doubt of it, sir,” was the grave and reverent reply. “I believe that all our ways are ordered for us; that everything is arranged for us by an All-wise Power.”
Something very like a sneer curled the almost colorless lips of his host at this unexpected assertion.
Mr. Abbot was no believer in the individuality of God, and had spoken both lightly and at random when he had referred to the young man’s visit as being providential.
“What do you mean by an All-wise Power?” he asked, skeptically.
“I mean God, sir.”
“You believe there is a God, then?”
“Certainly; do you not?” and Mr. Heath’s kind, grave eyes looked pityingly into the haggard, sunken face before him.
They seemed almost to say, “If you have not this belief to comfort you, with the hand of death laid upon your very heart, I grieve inexpressibly for you.”
“If there is, I imagine He must allow Satan to have the control of some of our lives,” was the evasive and bitter retort. “Virgie, Mr. Heath’s cup is empty.”
But his face flushed and his hands trembled as he thus abruptly turned the topic, showing how deeply the subject moved him; notwithstanding his pretended unbelief.
“Thanks; no more coffee for me,” Mr. Heath said, with a smile and a bow to his young hostess, as she offered to replenish his cup; but he noticed that there was a troubled, anxious look in her eyes as they rested upon her father.
He made no reply to Mr. Abbot’s remark, although he looked a trifle hurt.
He simply said, as he folded his napkin and pushed back his plate:
“I must ask you to excuse me and my lack of ceremony if I bid you good morning, and take French leave. I feel that I ought to get on my way as soon as possible; and believe me I am very grateful for your hospitality and courtesy.”
Virgie arose as he spoke, and like the true little lady that she was, assured him that it had been a delight to entertain him, and she should look forward with pleasure to his return.
He thanked her, shook hands warmly with her, and then left the house, followed by Mr. Abbot, who watched him depart with a feeling of regret such as he had not experienced over any one during all the years of his exile.
Still he pleasantly anticipated his coming again, when he meant to make him remain several days.
He had been strangely attracted toward him from the moment when he had first heard his mellow, sympathetic tones, asking to be directed to a place of shelter. He knew that he possessed a grand character, for he carried the stamp of true nobility upon his frank, handsome face.
“That is a promising young man, Virgie,” he said, as he returned to the parlor after watching the horse and its rider disappear down the mountain. “I should like to know where he came from, and more about him.”
Virgie did not reply, but she turned away from the window where she, too, had been watching the receding horseman, with a shy, sweet smile on her red lips. William Heath’s last glance had been for her, as he doffed his hat and bowed low in his saddle when he turned down the road.
During all the week that followed her step was lighter and her face brighter than its wont, and she went singing about the house to the delight of her father, who was now at home all the day long, as he had given up going to the mine.
Mr. Abbot had appeared very thoughtful after the departure of his young guest, often falling into a profound reverie, in which he would sit for hours.
Virgie often wondered what he could be thinking about, but she did not feel like questioning him, lest he should refer again to the painful topic of his leaving her.
One day, however, coming into the room suddenly, she saw her mother’s bible in his hands, and she was sure there were tears in his eyes. She appeared not to notice either his employment or his emotion, but soon stole softly away again, and went weeping up to her own room.
After that he busied himself with writing a great deal, and she felt sure that he was making arrangements for her of which he had spoken on that stormy evening. A great dread came over her at the thought of being left alone in the world; and yet, in spite of all, she looked forward to the return of Mr. Heath with more of pleasure and anticipation than she had known for many a year.
Thus more than a week went by, and one afternoon Virgie, her father being asleep and the house oppressively still, took her book and went out to a little nook back of her cottage, where she was in the habit of going to study, and where Chi Lu had built a rustic seat for her beneath a great pine tree that grew out of a cleft in the mountain.
But she could not concentrate her thoughts upon the page before her; they went roving after a coal black steed and its handsome rider, until finally her book dropped from her hands, her eyes fixed themselves dreamily upon the lofty, far-off peaks of the Humboldt Mountains, and she was lost to time and place–everything save her own delightful musings.
So absorbed was she that she was not aware of the approach of any one until a small but exquisitely arranged bouquet of mountain flowers were laid upon the seat beside her, and a rich but well remembered voice said:
“Pardon me, Miss Abbot, for intruding upon your solitude, but Chi Lu told me that Mr. Abbot was resting and could not be disturbed at present, and that I should find you here.”
Virginia sprang to her feet, the tint of the wild rose in her cheeks, her violet eyes grown black with repressed excitement.
“Mr. Heath?” she cried, her scarlet lips parting in a bewildering smile.
“Yes; forgive me for having startled you so,” he said, gently, then adding with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “You were surely in a very brown study.”
“I am afraid I was,” she returned, laughing. “But what lovely flowers!” she continued, taking them up and bending to inhale their fragrance. “How kind of you to gather them for me.”
The young man’s eyes lingered about her in a delighted gaze, for she made the fairest picture imaginable standing there in her soft gray dress with its collar and cuffs of black velvet, a knot of scarlet ribbon at her throat, the brilliant flowers in her hands, and a fleecy white shawl wrapped about her shoulders. Her shining hair was gathered into a satiny brown coil at the back of her head and pinned with a silver arrow, while a few naturally curling locks lay lightly on her forehead. The dark, moss-grown rock was behind her; the softly waving plumy boughs of the pine tree above her, a carpet of tender green beneath her feet.
“You are still trembling from the shock that I have given you,” he said in a tone of self-reproach, and noticing how the flowers quivered in her grasp, “pray, pardon me and give me a handshake of welcome, or I shall almost regret that I came.”
She looked up frankly into his dark eyes, and laid her small hand unhesitatingly in his.
“You are very welcome, Mr. Heath,” she said, “and I am sure that papa will be very glad to see you.”
William Heath smiled at her words.
He felt sure that she, too, was glad to see him–that his coming was a pleasant break in the monotony of her life; her varying color, the bright, happy gleam of her eyes told him this.
Her wonderful beauty, so out of place in that wild region, thrilled him strangely. Her queenly manner, her delicacy and refinement astonished him, and he wondered more and more what mysterious circumstances could have combined to drive two such cultivated people so far from civilization to hide themselves in the rugged fastnesses of those dreary mountains.
A Mountain Ramble.
“You were reading,” he remarked, stooping to pick up the book that had fallen to the ground as she arose. “Tacitus!” he added, in a tone of astonishment, as his eye fell upon the title page.
“Yes, I am reviewing; papa likes me to study a little every day, still,” Virgie returned, quietly, while she examined her flowers with a critical eye, and wondered that a gentleman could have arranged them so well.
He must be an artist, she thought, for no one save an artist, or a lover of art, could have taken such pains to harmonize colors like that.
“I should suppose you would labor under serious difficulties in trying to pursue your studies in such a place as this,” Mr. Heath remarked.
“Oh, no, papa is a fine scholar, and he makes a most delightful teacher.”
“And have you pursued a regular course under him?”
“Yes, partly. I left school when I was fifteen, but I have kept right on the same as I should have done if I had remained, and I graduated two years ago,” she concluded, smiling archly at the idea of graduating in that wild country.
“And with high honors, of course,” said her companion in the same vein.
“Certainly; with all the honors, since there was no one to compete with me or to bear away the palm from me. But, Mr. Heath, you must be both weary and hungry after your ride over the mountains; come in, and let me get you a lunch,” Virgie concluded, on hospitable thoughts intent.
“No, indeed, thank you; I will eat nothing until tea time, when, if you will permit me, I will gladly join you. I should much prefer to sit here and enjoy this magnificent view with you to going indoors.”
He seated himself, as he spoke, upon the rustic seat, and Virgie, following his example, they fell into a pleasant chat, which lasted more than an hour.
Virgie never forgot that delicious hour, neither did her companion, who was every moment growing more deeply interested in the beautiful mountain maiden.
He talked upon many themes, and was surprised to find how fluently she could converse with him, showing how much and how thoroughly she had read, and how wisely and carefully her father had superintended her education. She was far above the average woman in point of intellect and culture, he told himself and it was a pity that her life should be wasted in that wretched place.
But they were at length interrupted by Chi Lu, who came to tell them that Mr. Abbot was awake, and had asked for them.
They immediately arose to go to him, and found him sitting upon the tiny porch in front of the cottage.
He was looking thinner and more worn, Mr. Heath thought, than when he had last seen him, and his cough was far from troublesome, even though the weather was milder. It was evident, to him, at least, that the man was in the last stages of consumption, and could not live many months, if weeks, although, as the weather grew warmer, he might rally somewhat.
He greeted the young man warmly, and made many inquiries regarding his trip and the success which he and his party had met with in their sport.
“Very good,” Mr. Heath told him, adding, “And now my friends have gone to Salt Lake City, while I have retraced my steps hither to talk with you about that claim of yours.”
Virgie looked up quickly at this, a lovely flush rising to her cheek. If only he would become its purchaser.
The eyes of the two young people met, and held each other in a glance that sent the blood coursing more rapidly than usual through their veins.
Mr. Abbot’s face, brightened.
“Then you still think that you know some one who will purchase it?” he said, eagerly.
“Yes, sir–if–if it proves all that you have described it, I think I may like to buy it myself,” Mr. Heath answered quietly, but with rising color.
“You! you don’t look like a person who would care to take to mining for a living,” returned his host, in a surprised tone.
“I might say the same of you, sir,” said the young man, smiling.
Mr. Abbot flushed, and for a moment appeared considerably agitated and unable to speak.
Then he said, with something of hauteur in his manner:
“Sometimes a person is compelled by circumstances, over which he has no control, to adopt a pursuit, which under other conditions he would shun as both unfitting and obnoxious.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Abbot,” Mr. Heath hastened to say, in a deprecatory tone. “I had no intention of calling to mind anything of an unpleasant nature; my reply was lightly and thoughtlessly given. However, I have always had a desire to see something of mining, and although I may not attempt to work at it myself, I think I should like to own a claim.”
“Very well; then to-morrow I will show you over the premises; and explain all that you may wish to know; perhaps, though you may not be quite so much in favor of a miner’s life when you come to realize the difficulties attending it.”
Chi Lu now interrupted with the information that tea was ready, and Mr. Abbot repeated the invitation that Virgie had already given to their new friend, insisting further, that he should remain their guest until he should decide regarding the purchase of the claim.
Upon being assured that it would inconvenience the household in no way, he consented, nothing loath at the prospect of being allowed to bask in Virgie’s presence, and to have an opportunity to study her character more fully.
After tea, which was really a dainty meal, far better and more acceptably served than any the young traveler had eaten since leaving San Francisco three weeks previous, Mr. Heath, seeing that Mr. Abbot was weary and more inclined to rest upon the lounge than to converse, asked Virgie if she would allow him to be her escort and go out for a ramble.
The young girl flushed with pleasure at the request, and cordially assented.
She wrapped her fleecy shawl once more about her shoulders, and tying a dainty hat–which Chi Lu’s skillful fingers had woven from mountain grasses, and her own fair hands had trimmed–upon her pretty brown head, they sauntered forth.
The sun had gone down, but the western sky was all ablaze with crimson and orange, which gradually faded into soft purple and deeper blue in the upper sky. There were mountains all about them, some darkly green with fir, spruce, and pine, others of brighter and tenderer tints in their dress of oak, maple, and birch, while here and there arose one bald and gray, all of solid rock, with now and then a patch of moss clinging to its time worn sides, but giving variety to the scene and enhancing by contrast the whole picture.
“Where would you like to go?” Virgie asked, as they passed out of the little gate into the rough road.
“Wherever you will take me,” Mr. Heath replied, as he looked smilingly down into the beautiful face upraised to his.
“Then I will take you up to the Bare Ledge; the finest view can be obtained from there,” the girl replied as she moved on to hide the blush which his look had called to her face.
It moved her strangely whenever she met the gaze of the grand man, for grand her soul told her he was, with that magnificent head, that intelligent face, and that quiet, yet high-bred dignity of manner which she had never seen in any other save her father.
“The Bear Ledge?” repeated Mr. Heath. “Why is it called that? Is it haunted by wild beasts? If it is, I shall certainly object to your going there.”
“Oh, no; it is not that kind of a bear at all,” laughed Virgie, the silver ripple of amusement breaking like music upon the evening air. “It is called so because it is a mass of rock entirely barren; nothing will grow upon it; it seems to be the one spot in all this region that is absolutely desolate, and yet from it you may view a world of beauty.”
On they went up the mountain, conversing now upon one topic, now upon another, yet both conscious of but one prominent fact–that they were together, and supremely happy in each other’s society.
At last, however, their climb was over, and following a rough path that led along the side of the mountain for some distance, they at length came out upon a broad ledge or table rock, which was indeed barren to desolation.
But the vista that opened out before them was beautiful beyond description.
Mountains everywhere–above, below, and on either hand; but between them were fertile little valleys, with here and there glittering lakes with tiny streamlets trickling into them, that seemed like silver brooches and chains garnishing nature’s emerald vestments.
The youthful couple stood wrapt in silence for several minutes, viewing the varied landscape. To Virgie the scene was familiar as an oft-repeated tale, and yet she was never weary of it. To her companion it was one of the loveliest views that he had ever gazed upon, even though he had visited many lands and climbed many a mountain.
“It is grand!” said Mr. Heath, at last.
“It is grand!” echoed Virgie, drawing in a deep breath of pure air, and sweeping a delighted glance over all the fair scene.
“I thank you very much for bringing me here,” her companion continued. “I would hardly have believed there could be such an exquisite view in this region; my disagreeable ride, when I came here before, rather prejudiced me against the locality. Do you come here often?”
“I used to, before papa’s health failed him,” Virgie answered, with a regretful sigh, as she remembered how little her father had been able to go about of late. “We used to come here almost every Sabbath in fine weather, with our books and papers, and spend half the day–it is all the church we have had–and I shall always love the spot.”
“No doubt you do, and yet—-“
Virgie looked up inquiringly as he paused abruptly.
“I was thinking,” he continued, in reply to her glance, “that this mountain must be a wild and lonely place for one like you to spend your life in.”
“Yes, it is lonely,” the young girl responded, with a wistful gleam in her violent eyes.
“Have you lived here long, Miss Abbot?”
“Five years–a little more.”
“So long? Surely you cannot have had much congenial society,” Mr. Heath remarked, as he contemplated with no favoring eye the rude hamlet far below them on their right.
“None, save my father.”
“And have you never been lonely, and yearned for youthful companionship?”
“Oh, yes, often,” and the bright tears sprang quickly into Virgie’s blue eyes, as she thought of the nights she had wept herself to sleep from sheer homesickness and a feeling of utter desolation. “But,” she continued more brightly, and winking rapidly to keep the tell-tale drops from falling. “I can bear loneliness, or almost anything else, for my father’s sake.”
“Poor child! brave little woman!” thought the man by her side, “it must have been very much like being buried alive, and she has borne it like a heroine; but she will not have to endure it much longer ‘for her father.’ I wonder what will become of her when he is gone.”
“Mr. Abbot seems very feeble,” he said aloud, “do you not think a change would be beneficial to him?”
“I–do not know,” Virgie began wistfully; then added, more to herself than to him, “Where could we go?”
“I would advise the sea-shore. I should think the salt air would do him good. Santa Cruz, Monterey, or any of those places on the California coast, would be both pleasant and healthful.”
A startled look came into Virgie’s eyes, and her face grew pale.
She had often been to Santa Cruz and Monterey, in the old delightful days when her mother was living, where she had reigned like a little queen, and they had all been so happy, with no suspicion of the black shadow that was creeping upon them so surely.
“No, no, we could not go there; I–I do not believe that papa could be persuaded to leave home,” she faltered with evident nervousness and embarrassment.
“There is a sad history and a secret here,” said Mr. Heath to himself, and he wondered more than ever what cruel misfortune could have driven these people thus into exile.
“Has Mr. Abbot ever consulted a physician?” he asked.
“No; there is no physician near us. But papa understands something of medicine himself,” Virgie answered, sighing, for her heart was very heavy whenever she thought of her father’s condition, and it was evident to her that Mr. Heath considered him to be in a very critical state.
He saw that it troubled her to talk about it, and resolved that he would not refer to the subject again.
As they stood there the gorgeous tints faded out of the western sky, a purplish haze settled over mountain and valley, like a gauzy vail softening all their outlines, and a mist was beginning to rise from the depths below.
“The dew is falling, Miss Abbot. I fear you will take cold in this dampness. Shall I take you back now?” Mr. Heath asked.
“Yes. I think it will be hardly safe for us to linger longer,” she replied. “But, Mr. Heath, be careful as you go down; the path is not altogether safe.”
The young man laughed lightly.
“I have scaled greater heights, climbed steeper and more rugged paths than these, Miss Abbot,” he said. “The Alps, the Pyrenees, the Caucasus, are all familiar ground, and this is but child’s play compared with them.”
“Oh, then you have been in Europe?” Virgie cried, with animation.
“Yes, in almost every portion of it,” he answered, watching her kindly face with admiration.
“How favored you are,” she sighed wistfully. “I have longed with a mighty longing to visit foreign lands.”
“Have you? Perhaps some time your wish may be gratified. I hope it may be,” he returned, in an earnest tone. “Now give me your hand, and let me assist you down this slippery path.”
“No, no. Please care for yourself, Mr. Heath, and let me follow you,” the young girl pleaded. “I know every step of the way, and it is all strange to you.”
But he stood still in the way, with his hand outstretched to her, resolute yet smiling. He would not yield his point, and without another word she laid her own within his, and together they went down the mountain path, he guiding her steps as carefully as if she had never been over the ground before, and she finding it very pleasant to be so shielded and attended.
When they reached more level ground he drew the hand he held within his arm, and they slowly wended their way back in the gloaming to the cottage, Virgie feeling strangely light-hearted and happy, and almost as if a new and beautiful life was about opening before her, while William Heath, with a twinkle of amusement in his fine eyes, wondered what his aristocratic mother and sister would say; what another brilliantly beautiful woman would think to see him thus playing the devoted cavalier to this simple and unpretending mountain maiden whom he thought so lovely.
He had at that moment in his pocket, letters from two of them, begging him to “quit his wanderings,” to “come home and settle down to the real business of life. The property needed his care, and–Sadie had not been like herself since his departure.”
These words came to him now, but they did not change in the least the purposes that were taking root in his mind–the determination to remain in that isolated hamlet as long as Virginia Abbot’s father should live.
“Who Is He, and Why Is He Here?”
The next morning Mr. Abbot and his young guest visited the mine, and, after a thorough examination of the former’s claim, and instituting some inquiries, more for form’s sake than anything else, regarding the wealth of the mine generally, Mr. Heath became the purchaser of Mr. Abbot’s property, and at once set about hiring competent miners to work it for him.
“It may prove but a foolish, quixotic undertaking after all,” he told himself, when his negotiations were completed, “but I must have some excuse for remaining here. That girl is the most beautiful being I ever met. She has power to move me as I was never moved before. I simply cannot go away and leave her. I am sure her father can live but a little while, and then–“
What was to happen after Mr. Abbot should be taken away remained unsaid, and Mr. Heath walked on for a while with bent head and thoughtful brow.
He was looking about him a little to find a place in which to live while he should remain on the mountain, for he was resolved that he would trespass upon Mr. Abbot’s hospitality no longer than he was obliged to, although every hour in Virgie’s presence was perfect delight to him.
“I would give a good deal to know their history,” he resumed, after a little. “It is the greatest mystery–their being here. The man shows culture and familiarity with men and things; he is unusually keen and shrewd in business matters, while the way he has managed his daughter’s education betrays the scholar and a mind of no ordinary power and ability; and to be here, working with the common herd in a mine! I do not
While he was speculating thus regarding his new friends, Mr. Abbot and Virgie were engaged in the same manner with reference to him.
“Well, Virgie, I have sold my claim, and for a generous sum, too. Mr. Heath is no haggler, and gave me my price without a demur; but I think that it is very queer that a young man of his stamp should care to engage in any such business.”
“It is rather strange,” Virgie admitted, absently.
“He is far above the people with whom he will come in contact,” continued her father. “He has evidently been accustomed to the very best of society, is well educated and fine appearing, and seems to have an abundance of means. What do you make of him, dear?”
“I should say that he is very much of a gentleman, papa,” replied the young girl, flushing, as she remembered their walk of the previous evening, the care and attention which he had bestowed upon her, and the delight which she had experienced in his presence.
“Yes, that goes without saying; but, does he seem like an American to you?”
“I had not given a thought to his nationality,” Virgie answered, looking up curiously.
“Well, it strikes me that he may be English, although there is nothing in his speech or manner to betray it. He is built like an Englishman, and somehow the idea has taken possession of me that he belongs over the water, and so, his desire to settle here seems all the more incomprehensible.”
“It may be a whim–a romantic desire to learn something of a miner’s life,” observed Virgie; “or,” with more animation, “he may be an author, papa, and is taking this way to study certain phases of character with reference to writing a book.”
“Well, Virgie,” said Mr. Abbot, smiling, “I must confess that is the most reasonable explanation that could suggest itself, and possibly, with your woman’s intuition, you have hit upon the right solution of the mystery. Yes,” after a thoughtful pause, “I shouldn’t wonder if you were right. His saying that he did not intend to work the mine himself goes to show that it is a secondary object, and he does not care particularly about the profit of it. He is very pleasant company. I believe his coming has done me good.”
“I am sure it has,” Virgie answered, brightly; “and papa, now that your mind is relieved of all pecuniary care, don’t you think you will continue to improve?”
“No, Virgie,” her father returned, gravely; “do not allow my temporary improvement to deceive you. A fatal disease has fastened itself upon me, and I know that I have not long to live.”
“Oh, papa!” exclaimed the lovely girl, sharply. “I will not believe it. Pray, pray try what medical advice will do for you.”
“Hush, my child,” Mr. Abbot returned, deeply moved. “I did not mean to refer to this again, but you force me to do so; nothing short of a miracle could give me a sound pair of lungs again.”
“Then let us try change of air–anything so that I may keep you with me,” Virgie pleaded, yet knowing, as she did so, that there was no place on earth that held so much attraction for her now as the humble home which heretofore had seemed so lonely and isolated.
A subtle charm seemed suddenly to have fallen upon it; everything looked brighter; all things surrounding it had become dearer.
“No, dear; no air will be so good for me as this pure, bracing mountain atmosphere,” her father replied, gently. “I would shrink from going to any place where we should be likely to find familiar faces–nothing would break me down so quickly. Be patient, Virgie for a little longer, and then you shall go back to the world, where you ought long ago to have been with people of your own age.”
“Oh, papa! I care nothing for the world nor for society without you,” she sobbed, realizing more fully than she ever had done, that she would soon be fatherless.
“But it is not right that you should spend your life in such a place as this,” responded Mr. Abbot. “I have written to Mr. Bancroft, and if anything happens to me suddenly you will find the letter in my desk, and must send it to him immediately. I would mail it now, only–I cannot feel reconciled to having any one learn of our hiding-place while I live. One thing more I must speak of. I should have done so the other night if we had not been interrupted. When I am gone I want you to lay my body here, under the shadow of the old pine tree.”
“Papa, papa! you will break my heart! Surely you would wish to lie beside my mother!” Virgie cried, the tears raining over her cheeks.
Mr. Abbot’s face was almost convulsed with pain for a moment.
“Yes, if that were possible,” he said, at length, “but no one must ever know the fate of Abbot Al–Ha! Virgie, I had nearly uttered the dishonored name!” he panted.
“Papa, you shall not talk so,” the girl cried, wiping her tears and turning on him almost indignantly.
“I would not pain you, my darling,” he answered, gently; “but if there were no cloud hanging over us, I should be only too glad to go back to our old home to die and be laid beside my loved ones. It cannot be, however,” he concluded, sighing wearily.
“But, dear papa, the dreadful past was caused by no fault of your own, and it is not right that you should suffer as if it had been,” Virgie said, passionately.
A cynical smile curled the lips of the sick man.
“The world would tell a far different story if it should ferret out my grave and see my name blazoned above it; and as long as its poisonous tongues continue to speak slightingly of me, it must never know aught about me. So do as I bid you; promise that you will obey me, Virgie.”
And the almost broken-hearted girl promised, but feeling as if it would be almost more than she could bear, to go back to the gay world, where she would be kindly cared for and sheltered, and leave her dear father lying in his lonely grave upon that desolate mountain.
William Heath entered with great apparent interest upon his mining operations, and although he frankly acknowledged his entire ignorance of the business, exhibited a goodly amount of judgment and common sense which warned the workmen whom he had hired that it would not be well for them to attempt to take advantage of him.
He was unable to find any place in which he was willing to live, so he caused a small cabin to be erected just opposite Mr. Abbot’s dwelling, furnished it simply but comfortably from the nearest supply station, and with Mr. Abbot’s permission, contracted with Chi Lu to keep his table supplied with all needful provisions.
No one would have supposed from his humble surroundings from the industrious and energetic life which he led, and the total absence of anything like arrogance or assumption, that he belonged to an almost royal family, and had been for years the petted darling of fashionable circles and drawing rooms, the catch of many seasons, and the prize for which fond mammas and beautiful, aspiring maidens had long angled in vain.
But such was the fact, and William Heath had thus isolated himself from his home and all that he held most dear simply because, while on a pleasure trip, he had accidentally met a beautiful girl who had chanced to touch a chord in his heart that had never vibrated before.
These two young people were now thrown almost daily into each other’s society.
Mr. Heath was quite literary in his tastes, and after the duties of the day were over he invariably sought the companionship of Virgie, sometimes reading to her while she worked, and often with her as she still persisted in reviewing certain studies and authors which she loved.
The failing invalid, too, received much of his care and attention, while many delicacies, which he had never taken pains to procure for himself, found their way to his table to help sustain his waning strength.
It is easy to see whither all this tended.
Virgie soon learned to look for Heath’s coming, to listen for his footsteps and the sound of his voice, as she had never looked for or listened to anything else in the world before. She began to rely upon him, to experience a sense of restfulness and content in his care that sometimes made her wonder how she had ever been able to live without him.
There came new beauty, and light, and earnestness into her face, a tenderer smile to her red lips, a more musical cadence into her voice. The hours dragged heavily without him, and they took to themselves wings when he came.
Before she realized the fact she had learned to love him with all the strength of her nature, and her destiny was sealed.
Thus weeks and months went by.
For a time the warm, genial summer weather seemed to hold Mr. Abbot’s disease somewhat in check, and, as he was cheerful, and enjoyed the novelty of having two young and charming people about him, there was a little season during which that small household was very happy.
He studied the young stranger attentively, and was more and more prepossessed in his favor. They conversed frequently upon topics which Mr. Abbot had long been in the habit of scoffing at, but there was an element of reverence in Mr. Heath’s nature that commanded his respect in spite of preconceived ideas and a tendency to skepticism. His arguments were always reasonable and convincing. He could not fail to feel this influence; and it was not long before Virgie could see that a great change had taken place in her father’s feelings regarding his relations to an overruling power and the future, which hitherto had seemed so vague and uncertain.
Yet, notwithstanding all this, he often experienced a feeling of uneasiness.
He could not fail to perceive that Virgie was learning to care a great deal for their new friend, and that Mr. Heath was deeply interested in his daughter.
This was all well enough if Mr. Heath was what he appeared to be, and his intentions were honorable.
But he could never quite divest himself of the feeling that there was something rather mysterious in his desire to remain in that remote region, and it would be terrible if any harm should result from it to his one ewe lamb.
He had always guarded her so tenderly and carefully no breath of evil, scarce a sorrow, save their one great sorrow, had ever touched her. Once or twice the thought had come to him, prompted, no doubt, by the circumstances which had driven him to that place, that the man might have become entangled in some wrong or crime, and was hiding, like himself, from the world and justice; and yet it was difficult to fancy that he was not all that was honorable and upright, for his life and conduct from day to day were beyond reproach.
“If they love each other, and he is all he seems, I could give her to him, and feel more content than I ever thought to be,” he said to himself, while brooding upon the subject one afternoon while Virgie and her lover were out on a ramble. “She would be far better off under the care and protection of a kind husband, than she would be to send her to New York. Her future would be settled, and there would be no fear on account of the snares and temptations of society in the gay city.
“Still I really know nothing about him. He says nothing about himself, his home, or his family. If it should turn out that he has a suspicion that she will have money, and he is seeking her for that, it would be a fearful blow. I could not bear that her young life should be ruined.”
He sat in troubled thought for a long time, considering the subject from every point, sometimes reproaching himself for not having foreseen the danger of allowing the two young people to come together, and refused to sell his claim to Mr. Heath; then again feeling a sense of shame for his unworthy suspicions of one who bore the stamp of true nobility upon his very face.
At length he was aroused from his reverie by the sound of the voice he knew and loved so well; and, sitting suddenly erect and speaking with resolution, he said:
“I am her father. I have a right to know. He shall tell me who he is, and why he is here.”
“Will You Give Me Your Daughter?”
“Papa,” said Virgie, putting a flushed, beautiful face inside the room where her father was sitting, and all unconscious of the very serious considerations that were agitating his mind: “I have invited Mr. Heath to take tea with us. A basket of the loveliest peaches came to us this afternoon from some mysterious source, which, however, I am inclined to think, he could tell us something about if he chose. So, if you entertain him for a little while, I will go and prepare a dish of them for him to share with us.”
“Yes, yes. Come in, Mr. Heath. I was waiting to see you. Run away, Virgie, and attend to your peaches, and I will see that our friend is properly entertained until tea is ready,” the invalid responded, with unusual animation.
Virgie tripped lightly up to her chamber, where she removed her hat, and stopped a moment before her glass to rearrange the locks that lay lightly upon her forehead, and blushed a conscious rosy red as she looked into her eyes and read the strangely happy expression that lay in their clear depths. Then she tied a long white apron around her slim waist, and went down to pare her peaches, never suspecting the vital questions that were being discussed in the little parlor so near her.
“Mr. Heath,” Mr. Abbot began, as the young man had seated himself, “I was thinking of you just as you entered, and had resolved to ask you a couple of very plain, and to me, important questions.”
“Which, no doubt, I shall be very glad to answer if I can do so,” his companion responded, smiling, yet flushing lightly as he began to suspect what the nature of the invalid’s inquiries might be.
“Thank you,” responded Mr. Abbot, courteously, and then added, gravely: “I do not need to remind you, I am sure, that as a father I am often anxious regarding my daughter’s future, and for this reason I feel compelled to ask you that which, under other circumstances I should not feel at liberty to ask. Will you tell me who you are?”
“My name, Mr. Abbot, is–William Heath,” the young man began, looking thoughtful; then seemed to hesitate to go on.
“Is that all that you have to tell me about yourself?” the invalid inquired, with some dignity, and attentively studying the face opposite him. “I knew that before,” he went on, a suspicion of sarcasm in his tone, “but I have long felt that there was something of mystery connected with the circumstances of your being here. It is rather extraordinary that a young man of your talent and culture should desire to locate in a rough place like this. It has been evident to me for some time that your mining operations were of secondary importance to you, for you cannot reap much if any profit. It must take nearly all you realize to pay the two men you hire to work your claim, while you lead, comparatively, a life of leisure. My second question was regarding this–why are you here?”
William Heath lifted his frank, dark eyes, and looked straight into the face of his host, and said, in a low tone, but with an earnestness which betrayed that he felt he had much at stake:
“Mr. Abbot, I will answer your last question first, as frankly as you have asked it, though, no doubt, you will be greatly surprised, and perhaps startled, by my reply. I am here simply and solely to try and win Virginia Abbot for my wife.”
Mr. Abbot sat erect, looking astonished indeed at this astounding statement, and a spot of deep red settled in each hollow cheek.
“What can you mean? You never saw her until three months ago!” he said, excitedly.
“True, I never saw her until that wild, stormy night when I came to you a weary, dripping traveler and you so kindly extended to me your hospitality. But I began to love your daughter that very evening. I do not need to tell you that she is beautiful, for you know it; but to me she seemed the fairest woman that I had ever seen; her presence moved me as I had never been moved before, and I felt as if I could hardly go on to join my friends and leave her. But I suddenly found a pretext for returning when you mentioned that you desired to dispose of your claim. I resolved that I would become the purchaser. I would come here and remain to study the character of your daughter, and if she proved all that I fancied her, I would strive to win her for my wife. This, my dear sir, is why I am here; and now–will you give her to me?”
“Have you said anything to Virgie about this?” Mr. Abbot asked, looking very grave.
“No, sir; I have not breathed a word of my intentions to her; but I accepted her invitation to tea this evening with the determination to tell you this, if I could make the opportunity, and ask your sanction to my suit before speaking to her.”
Mr. Abbot looked gratified.
“That was honorable of you,” he said. “It meets my estimate of your character.”
“Thank you, sir,” Mr. Heath returned, flushing slightly, then continued: “I am not given much to rhapsody or extravagances of language, but I know that I can never be a happy man unless I win Virgie, and if you will give her to me, I promise most solemnly to devote my life to her happiness.”
“Is William Heath your true name?” Mr. Abbot questioned, determined to know all about him before committing himself.
“Yes, sir. I hope you do not think I have been masquerading under a false name,” returned the young man, a quick flush mantling his cheek.
“Pardon me; but you must remember that I could not account for your being here, and–and I was a little suspicious, I own, that you were not quite what you pretended to be,” said the invalid, apologetically, and yet regarding him keenly.
The flush on William Heath’s face deepened. He looked very thoughtful for a moment, then said:
“Mr. Abbot, you have read between the lines better than I thought. I would have preferred to remain plain William Heath to every one until after I had won my love; but perhaps I had better be perfectly frank with you. I am not an American.”
“I thought so,” returned his companion, quietly.
“Did you?” asked the young man, looking surprised. “I compliment you upon your penetration then, for I have passed for one of your countrymen almost everywhere since coming to this country.”
“I think you are an Englishman,” said Mr. Abbot.
“I am, sir. I have an estate called Heathdale in the county of Hampshire, England. I own another in Surrey. Mr. Abbot, I am an English baronet, and I have simply been a visitor and traveler in this country during the last year.”
“You, an English baronet!” exclaimed Mr. Abbot, excitedly, a vivid flush suffusing his face, then quickly receding, leaving him deadly pale.
“Yes, sir; but, pray believe me, I had no intention of boasting of either my wealth or title,” observed the young man modestly.
“Oh!” sighed the sick man. “I am afraid then that you can never marry Virgie.”
“Sir! Why not? What is there in what I have told you to debar me from making your daughter my wife? I should suppose you would feel that I have it in my power to make her all the happier on account of it.”
“But you do not know, you cannot understand, you English are so proud, so tenacious of honor and caste. Ah, my poor child!” Mr. Abbot cried, incoherently, and appearing greatly agitated and distressed.
“I am sure, my friend, I cannot comprehend this excessive emotion,” Sir William–as we shall call him henceforth–remarked.
“Would you be willing to marry a woman whose name is irretrievably linked with disgrace?” Mr. Abbot asked, while cold perspiration started out upon his forehead, and his face was almost convulsed with his anguish of mind.
He knew that Virgie had grown to love this man. He was conscious of the pride and prejudices of the English aristocracy, and he believed that when he should tell the story of his life, as he knew it was only right he should do, Sir William Heath would no longer care to make his daughter his wife, and her heart would be broken.
Sir William looked up, startled at this question, his own face paling suddenly.
“Surely, Mr. Abbot, you cannot mean anything so bad as that,” he replied, in a low, pained tone.
“I will tell you all about it,” said the sick man, “and then you must decide for yourself whether you are still willing to wed the daughter of a dishonored man. Of course you have seen from the beginning of your acquaintance with us that no pleasure or profit that might accrue to us from this kind of a life could ever reconcile us to it; that only some terrible misfortune could have driven me and my beautiful darling into such a wild and desolate region as this.”
“Yes; I have felt that there was something mysterious in your being here–some secret reason why you should have shut yourselves away from all comfort and civilization,” Sir William admitted, as his companion paused for strength to go on. “But I have never attributed it to any willful wrong on your part.”
“Thank you for your faith in me,” returned Mr. Abbot, gratefully. “I only wish the world at large was as charitable; if it had been, I need not have been here now, on the verge of the grave, nor been obliged to doom my lonely child to a life of exile, when everything should be at the brightest for her; neither should we have been obliged to disown a name which, until recently had always been an honored and respected one”.
“Then your name is not Abbot,” said Sir William.
“Yes, but that is not the whole of it; I will, however, confide that to you later. But of course I tell you this in strictest confidence; whatever your decision may be after you hear my story, I charge you not to betray me to any one.”
“You may trust me,” said the young man, quietly.
“Then draw your chair closer, for not even Virgie knows the very worst, and I would not make her burden any heavier when there is no need.”
The young baronet did as he was requested, but he looked both troubled and pale, for he knew not how this story might affect his future prospects. He was not different from his kind in some points; he belonged to an old and honored family; no shadow had ever tarnished their fair fame; he was proud and tenacious of honor, and his heart was heavy with apprehension as he thought that he might be about to hear some story of crime or wrong that would forever separate him from the woman whom he had learned to idolize.
Mr. Abbot leaned nearer his companion, and in a low voice gave him a brief and rapid account of his life and the adverse fate that had served to banish him to the sparsely populated mountains of Nevada. It was a strange, sad story of sin, and wrong, and shame, in which a complication of evidence and circumstances had permitted the real offender to escape justice and another to suffer the consequences of his crime.
Sir William Heath never once moved or spoke during its recital, but his fine face expressed pain, and sorrow, and sympathy throughout, and when at length it was finished he still sat for several minutes in his chair, exhausted and panting from weariness and excitement.
At last the young man turned to his companion, a great pity and tenderness shining in his fine, clear eyes.
“Mr. Abbot,” he said, “you have told me one of the saddest stories that I have ever known, and I can find nothing but sympathy and regret for you in my heart. You have been but the victim of an atrocious wrong–no stain rests upon your character, if there appears to be upon your name, and so I ask you again, will you give me your daughter, if I find that I have been so fortunate as to have won her love? What you have related to me can never make any difference in my feelings toward her, and since I shall take her to another country, where nothing of this will ever be known or cast a shadow upon her future, as Lady Heath she will be honored and respected, and I trust, happy.”
Tears welled up into the eyes of the invalid as he listened to the words of this true, earnest lover.
“God bless you for a noble, royal hearted man!” he exclaimed, reaching forward and clasping the young baronet’s hand. “Yes, I can say God bless you now–for you have taught me to believe there is an Infinite Father and I can reverently invoke His benediction upon you. Of course I will give you Virgie and feel that she is richly blessed in having won such a husband and thus I can die with not a care upon my heart.”
“You have given me the richest boon that it is in my power to crave,” returned Sir William, his face kindling with happiness. “But you need not speak of dying. A sea voyage would prolong your life. Come with me at once to England and to Heathdale where you shall have every comfort and attention, and the change will do you good.”
A sad smile flitted over Mr. Abbot’s wan features.
“It is too late,” he said, sorrowfully. “I shall not live through another month; but my mind is at ease and it will be a restful season–the little time that I am spared. No, I shall never leave this place, but I have a request to make of you.”
“Tell me, and it shall be granted if it is in the power of man,” returned Sir William, eagerly.
“I should like, if you can win Virgie’s consent, to see her your wife before I die. It will be better for you both; then, after I am gone, you can take her away as soon as you choose, and perhaps among new scenes and with new ties she will not grieve so bitterly for me.”
Sir William Heath’s heart leaped with joy at this proposition, though there was an expression of sadness on his handsome face as he looked upon the wreck before him, and realized how truly he had spoken. He knew that he had very little time to live.
“If I can win her, nothing would make me happier than to accede to your wish,” he said, in a low, earnest tone.
At this time, a light step was heard in the hall, and the next moment the door was opened, while a sweet young voice called:
“Come, papa and Mr. Heath–tea is ready; the peaches are delicious, and Chi Lu has obtained, from some mysterious source, real cream to eat with them.”
“Will You Be My Wife?”
In spite of the exciting conversation of the last half-hour Mr. Abbot appeared more than usually cheerful during tea. He was indeed more like the brilliant, entertaining host that he used to be in their former beautiful home in San Francisco, than Virgie had seen him since their troubles had come upon them.
At the same, time the young girl wondered what could have occurred to make their guest so silent and preoccupied. It was evidently an effort for him to converse at all, while two or three times he was addressed more than once before he responded, but his glance whenever it met hers thrilled her strangely, and kept a beautiful flush upon her cheeks throughout the meal.
When it was concluded the two young people went out upon the porch to view the sunset, while Mr. Abbot retired to his room where he began looking over and rearranging the papers in his desk.
There was no need now to send that written history with its request for fatherly care for Virgie, to Lawrence Bancroft. He had not a doubt as to the result of Sir William Heath’s wooing. He was sure that Virgie loved him, and he was filled with a blessed content and fervent gratitude that so bright a future was opening before his darling.
She would go to another country where none of the old troubles could touch her, where no one would be able to point the finger of scorn at her and whisper that her name had been branded with dishonor, and where, surrounded by her noble husband’s love and care, occupying a high social position with every good thing that wealth could secure, her life would be one long summer of peace and happiness.
Meantime an awkward pause had fallen between Virgie and her lover standing outside upon the porch.
It was broken at last by the baronet with a very trite remark:
“What a warm evening.”
“Yes, it has been a very warm day,” answered Virgie, feeling very much inclined to laugh, for never before had they been forced to talk of the weather in order to keep up a conversation.
“Let us go to our seat under the old pine tree,” said Sir William, and without waiting for her consent, he stepped down to lead the way.
Virgie glanced at him questioningly.
The unusual gravity which she had observed during tea still rested upon his face and vibrated in his tones.
She wondered at it, and yet, although she could not have told why, her heart began to beat with quickened throbs on account of it.
Reaching their favorite nook, Sir William gently seated his companion, and then stood looking down upon her a moment without speaking.
Then he spoke, and there was a tenderer note in his voice than she had ever heard before.
“Virgie,” he said, “have you ever wondered why I came here and turned miner?”
She looked up quickly as he spoke her name thus for the first time, then her eyes suddenly drooped beneath the look in his.
“Yes, I have thought it a little singular that you should choose just this work and this locality,” she answered, in a low tone.
“May I tell you why I came?” seating himself at her side.
“Certainly, if you like.”
“It was because I found here the only woman whom I could ever love. Virgie, you are that woman, and my heart told me on that first evening when I came to you, cold, wet, and hungry, that I must win your love or my future would be void and desolate. So I seized upon the first reasonable pretext I could find for remaining, and that, you know, your father offered me in disposing of his claim. Sometimes I have hoped that you were learning to love me in return; sometimes I have feared that I should not succeed in this, the dearest object of my life. My darling, I resolved to-night that I would put my fate to the test. Will you give yourself to me for all time, my beautiful mountain queen? Do you love me well enough, dear, to put your hand in mine and tell me that you will go with me wherever I will, as my loved and cherished wife?”
Virginia Abbot sat there, her perfect form outlined against the dark, moss-grown rock that arose, rugged and grand, behind her. The softened light, as it fell upon her through the boughs of the tree above her, made her seem like some exquisite picture painted by a master-hand. Her hands, white as Parian marble, were quietly folded in her lap, but her heart was in a tumult of joy, and her color came and went in fitful flushes.
She knew that she deeply loved this grand man, who had come to her mountain home in the early summer time, and she felt that earth could hold no higher happiness for her than to become his wife and go with him whithersoever he willed. But she knew, too, that her first duty lay with her father; that she must have no interests that would interfere with the care and attention which she owed to him in his failing condition.
“Virgie, you will not crush the sweet hope that has been taking root in my heart during these months that I have spent with you,” Sir William pleaded, his face paling as she did not answer, and a fear smiting him that he might have been nourishing a delusion. “I have fancied that I have seen the love-light dawning in your eyes–oh, do not tell me that I have been deceiving myself. My darling, I will try to make your life very bright if you will give yourself to me.”
Virgie looked up now with a steady, unwavering glance into his eager eyes, although her face was dyed with blushes.
“Mr. Heath,” she faltered, “you know I cannot leave my father.”
“Of course I know it,” he returned, his face lighting “I do not ask it, darling; I only ask that you will give yourself into my keeping, and then we will devote ourselves to him as long as he lives. Oh, my dearest”–as he saw an answering gleam in her eyes–“you do love me!”
“Yes, I love you,” Virgie breathed, with a downcast but happy face; and then she was gathered close to her lover’s manly breast in a fond embrace.
“My love! my love! I would serve twice seven years, as Jacob did, in this wild region for the sake of winning that coveted confession from your dear lips. My mountain queen! and you will soon be my wife?”
But Virgie sat up suddenly at this and pushed him from her with gentle force, a frightened look in her eyes. Oh, “what have I done? I am afraid I have done wrong!” she cried.
“Wrong, dearest, in confessing that you love me!” Sir William whispered, as he tried to draw her again into his arms.
“But you do not know–I have no right to tell you; no–no, I am afraid I ought not to be your wife,” she said, remembering, with a sense of shame and misery, the stigma resting upon her name.
The young man regarded her anxiously for a moment; then he understood it all.
“Virgie,” he said, “you need not fear to promise all that I ask, for I know what troubles you. I asked your father’s sanction to my suit before I came to you, and he told me all his sad story. But it need be no barrier to our happiness. I told him so, and he gave you to me–providing I could win you–with his blessing.”
Virgie lifted her face, all radiant with a sweet new joy, a sense of exultation in her heart.
“And you were willing—-” she began, wondering at the great love that could thus level what she had had feared would be an insurmountable barrier.
“Willing, love, to make myself the happiest man on earth,” he interrupted, in a voice that actually trembled with joy. “What Mr. Abbot told me does not affect your worth or character, nor his either, and some time I believe the wrong will be made all right. Even were the facts more serious than they are, they need not trouble us, for I could take you far away from every breath of evil, and as my wife it could never touch you. So you will give yourself to me, Virgie?”
“Yes,” she answered, with grave sweetness; “if papa thinks it is right, I cannot put my cup of happiness away untasted.”
Sir William Heath bent and touched the beautiful girl’s lips with his first lover’s kiss.
“My beloved,” he said, “life looks to me now like one long vista of happiness–may it prove so to both of us.”
They sat there beneath the shadow of the great pine for more than an hour, wearing bright plans for the future, while the twilight gathered around them. But as yet Sir William had not told his bethrothed who he was, nor of the title awaiting her when she should become his wife. Somehow, he felt strangely reluctant to do so.
Once he had spoken of his home, and Virgie looked up with sudden interest, and asked:
“Where is your home, Mr. Heath?”
An amused smile played about his lips at her question
“My friends–that is those who love me—call me ‘Will,’ there,” he said, significantly; “and surely, darling you need not treat me with so much formality. Do not call me Mr. Heath any more, Virgie.”
“Please tell me where our home is to be–Will,” she said, looking up at him with a shy smile, and blushing as the newly spoken name left her lips.
He bent and touched them fondly with his own.
“In England, love,” he returned.
“Yes. Shall you regret leaving your own country?”
“No; I think I shall be glad,” Virgie answered, with a little sigh of content and relief.
Sir William looked gratified.
“Shall I describe our home to you?” he asked, thinking that perhaps now would be as good a time as any to tell more about himself and what her future position would be.
“Yes, do, please.”
“Well, then, imagine a large, old mansion, with many turrets and gables, its time-worn stones grown with ivy and moss, and set in the midst of extensive grounds, with grand, beautiful trees scattered all about. There is a great hall in the center of the house, with spacious rooms on either hand. At the end of this hall is the library, with two large bay-windows overlooking a winding river, which is the pride and glory of the place, and where we sail, and bathe, and fish during the summer months. Over the library there is a lovely suite of rooms, commanding a wide expanse of meadow and upland–a scene that is like a picture all the time–which will henceforth be devoted to the use of the future lady–of Heathdale.”
“Heathdale! What a pretty name!” Virgie cried, but still unsuspicious of the title which would become hers when she should go with him as his wife to England although he had almost given utterance to it, then hesitated, and substituted those last two words.
“Yes, it is a pretty name, and, Virgie, the place is the pride of my heart. At some distance from the mansion there are the stables and kennels, where the horses and dogs abide.”
“Why, Mr.—-Why, Will, what an extensive establishment! You must have—-“
Virgie began in a tone of surprise, then stopped in confusion.
“Well, I must have what?” he asked.
“A great deal of money to support such a place,” she replied, flushing.
“And is there anything very alarming about that?” he questioned, with a quiet smile.
“No; but–I thought—-“