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A Christmas Story
By A.M. Barnard
“How goes it, Frank? Down first, as usual.”
“The early bird gets the worm, Major.”
“Deuced ungallant speech, considering that the lovely Octavia is the worm,” and with a significant laugh the major assumed an Englishman’s favorite attitude before the fire.
His companion shot a quick glance at him, and an expression of anxiety passed over his face as he replied, with a well-feigned air of indifference, “You are altogether too sharp, Major. I must be on my guard while you are in the house. Any new arrivals? I thought I heard a carriage drive up not long ago.”
“It was General Snowdon and his charming wife. Maurice Treherne came while we were out, and I’ve not seen him yet, poor fellow!”
“Aye, you may well say that; his is a hard case, if what I heard is true. I’m not booked up in the matter, and I should be, lest I make some blunder here, so tell me how things stand, Major. We’ve a good half hour before dinner. Sir Jasper is never punctual.”
“Yes, you’ve a right to know, if you are going to try your fortune with Octavia.”
The major marched through the three drawing rooms to see that no inquisitive servant was eavesdropping, and, finding all deserted, he resumed his place, while young Annon lounged on a couch as he listened with intense interest to the major’s story.
“You know it was supposed that old Sir Jasper, being a bachelor, would leave his fortune to his two nephews. But he was an oddity, and as the title must go to young Jasper by right, the old man said Maurice should have the money. He was poor, young Jasper rich, and it seemed but just, though Madame Mère was very angry when she learned how the will was made.”
“But Maurice didn’t get the fortune. How was that?”
“There was some mystery there which I shall discover in time. All went smoothly till that unlucky yachting trip, when the cousins were wrecked. Maurice saved Jasper’s life, and almost lost his own in so doing. I fancy he wishes he had, rather than remain the poor cripple he is. Exposure, exertion, and neglect afterward brought on paralysis of the lower limbs, and there he is — a fine, talented, spirited fellow tied to that cursed chair like a decrepit old man.”
“How does he bear it?” asked Annon, as the major shook his gray head, with a traitorous huskiness in his last words.
“Like a philosopher or a hero. He is too proud to show his despair at such a sudden end to all his hopes, too generous to complain, for Jasper is desperately cut up about it, and too brave to be daunted by a misfortune which would drive many a man mad.”
“Is it true that Sir Jasper, knowing all this, made a new will and left every cent to his namesake?”
“Yes, and there lies the mystery. Not only did he leave it away from poor Maurice, but so tied it up that Jasper cannot transfer it, and at his death it goes to Octavia.”
“The old man must have been demented. What in heaven’s name did he mean by leaving Maurice helpless and penniless after all his devotion to Jasper? Had he done anything to offend the old party?”
“No one knows; Maurice hasn’t the least idea of the cause of this sudden whim, and the old man would give no reason for it. He died soon after, and the instant Jasper came to the title and estate he brought his cousin home, and treats him like a brother. Jasper is a noble fellow, with all his faults, and this act of justice increases my respect for him,” said the major heartily.
“What will Maurice do, now that he can’t enter the army as he intended?” asked Annon, who now sat erect, so full of interest was he.
“Marry Octavia, and come to his own, I hope.”
“An excellent little arrangement, but Miss Treherne may object,” said Annon, rising with sudden kindling of the eye.
“I think not, if no one interferes. Pity, with women, is akin to love, and she pities her cousin in the tenderest fashion. No sister could be more devoted, and as Maurice is a handsome, talented fellow, one can easily foresee the end, if, as I said before, no one interferes to disappoint the poor lad again.”
“You espouse his cause, I see, and tell me this that I may stand aside. Thanks for the warning, Major; but as Maurice Treherne is a man of unusual power in many ways, I think we are equally matched, in spite of his misfortune. Nay, if anything, he has the advantage of me, for Miss Treherne pities him, and that is a strong ally for my rival. I’ll be as generous as I can, but I’ll not stand aside and relinquish the woman I love without a trial first.”
With an air of determination Annon faced the major, whose keen eyes had read the truth which he had but newly confessed to himself. Major Royston smiled as he listened, and said briefly, as steps approached, “Do your best. Maurice will win.”
“We shall see,” returned Annon between his teeth.
Here their host entered, and the subject of course was dropped. But the major’s words rankled in the young man’s mind, and would have been doubly bitter had he known that their confidential conversation had been overheard. On either side of the great fireplace was a door leading to a suite of rooms which had been old Sir Jasper’s. These apartments had been given to Maurice Treherne, and he had just returned from London, whither he had been to consult a certain famous physician. Entering quietly, he had taken possession of his rooms, and having rested and dressed for dinner, rolled himself into the library, to which led the curtained door on the right. Sitting idly in his light, wheeled chair, ready to enter when his cousin appeared, he had heard the chat of Annon and the major. As he listened, over his usually impassive face passed varying expressions of anger, pain, bitterness, and defiance, and when the young man uttered his almost fierce “We shall see,” Treherne smiled a scornful smile and clenched his pale hand with a gesture which proved that a year of suffering had not conquered the man’s spirit, though it had crippled his strong body.
A singular face was Maurice Treherne’s; well-cut and somewhat haughty features; a fine brow under the dark locks that carelessly streaked it; and remarkably piercing eyes. Slight in figure and wasted by pain, he still retained the grace as native to him as the stern fortitude which enabled him to hide the deep despair of an ambitious nature from every eye, and bear his affliction with a cheerful philosophy more pathetic than the most entire abandonment to grief. Carefully dressed, and with no hint at invalidism but the chair, he bore himself as easily and calmly as if the doom of lifelong helplessness did not hang over him. A single motion of the hand sent him rolling noiselessly to the curtained door, but as he did so, a voice exclaimed behind him, “Wait for me, cousin.” And as he turned, a young girl approached, smiling a glad welcome as she took his hand, adding in a tone of soft reproach, “Home again, and not let me know it, till I heard the good news by accident.”
“Was it good news, Octavia?” and Maurice looked up at the frank face with a new expression in those penetrating eyes of his. His cousin’s open glance never changed as she stroked the hair off his forehead with the caress one often gives a child, and answered eagerly, “The best to me; the house is dull when you are away, for Jasper always becomes absorbed in horses and hounds, and leaves Mamma and me to mope by ourselves. But tell me, Maurice, what they said to you, since you would not write.”
“A little hope, with time and patience. Help me to wait, dear, help me to wait.”
His tone was infinitely sad, and as he spoke, he leaned his cheek against the kind hand he held, as if to find support and comfort there. The girl’s face brightened beautifully, though her eyes filled, for to her alone did he betray his pain, and in her alone did he seek consolation.
“I will, I will with heart and hand! Thank heaven for the hope, and trust me it shall be fulfilled. You look very tired, Maurice. Why go in to dinner with all those people? Let me make you cozy here,” she added anxiously.
“Thanks, I’d rather go in, it does me good; and if I stay away, Jasper feels that he must stay with me. I dressed in haste, am I right, little nurse?”
She gave him a comprehensive glance, daintily settled his cravat, brushed back a truant lock, and, with a maternal air that was charming, said, “My boy is always elegant, and I’m proud of him. Now we’ll go in.” But with her hand on the curtain she paused, saying quickly, as a voice reached her, “Who is that?”
“Frank Annon. Didn’t you know he was coming?” Maurice eyed her keenly.
“No, Jasper never told me. Why did he ask him?”
“To please you.”
“Me! When he knows I detest the man. No matter, I’ve got on the color he hates, so he won’t annoy me, and Mrs. Snowdon can amuse herself with him. The general has come, you know?”
Treherne smiled, well pleased, for no sign of maiden shame or pleasure did the girl’s face betray, and as he watched her while she peeped, he thought with satisfaction, Annon is right, I have the advantage, and I’ll keep it at all costs.
“Here is Mamma. We must go in,” said Octavia, as a stately old lady made her appearance in the drawing room.
The cousins entered together and Annon watched them covertly, while seemingly intent on paying his respects to Madame Mère, as his hostess was called by her family.
“Handsomer than ever,” he muttered, as his eye rested on the blooming girl, looking more like a rose than ever in the peach-colored silk which he had once condemned because a rival admired it. She turned to reply to the major, and Annon glanced at Treherne with an irrepressible frown, for sickness had not marred the charm of that peculiar face, so colorless and thin that it seemed cut in marble; but the keen eyes shone with a wonderful brilliancy, and the whole countenance was alive with a power of intellect and will which made the observer involuntarily exclaim, “That man must suffer a daily martyrdom, so crippled and confined; if it last long he will go mad or die.”
“General and Mrs. Snowden,” announced the servant, and a sudden pause ensued as everyone looked up to greet the newcomers.
A feeble, white-haired old man entered, leaning on the arm of an indescribably beautiful woman. Not thirty yet, tall and nobly molded, with straight black brows over magnificent eyes; rippling dark hair gathered up in a great knot, and ornamented with a single band of gold. A sweeping dress of wine-colored velvet, set off with a dazzling neck and arms decorated like her stately head with ornaments of Roman gold. At the first glance she seemed a cold, haughty creature, born to dazzle but not to win. A deeper scrutiny detected lines of suffering in that lovely face, and behind the veil of reserve, which pride forced her to wear, appeared the anguish of a strong-willed woman burdened by a heavy cross. No one would dare express pity or offer sympathy, for her whole air repelled it, and in her gloomy eyes sat scorn of herself mingled with defiance of the scorn of others. A strange, almost tragical-looking woman, in spite of beauty, grace, and the cold sweetness of her manner. A faint smile parted her lips as she greeted those about her, and as her husband seated himself beside Lady Treherne, she lifted her head with a long breath, and a singular expression of relief, as if a burden was removed, and for the time being she was free. Sir Jasper was at her side, and as she listened, her eye glanced from face to face.
“Who is with you now?” she asked, in a low, mellow voice that was full of music.
“My sister and my cousin are yonder. You may remember Tavia as a child, she is little more now. Maurice is an invalid, but the finest fellow breathing.”
“I understand,” and Mrs. Snowdon’s eyes softened with a sudden glance of pity for one cousin and admiration for the other, for she knew the facts.
“Major Royston, my father’s friend, and Frank Annon, my own. Do you know him?” asked Sir Jasper.
“Then allow me to make him happy by presenting him, may I?”
“Not now. I’d rather see your cousin.”
“Thanks, you are very kind. I’ll bring him over.”
“Stay, let me go to him,” began the lady, with more feeling in face and voice than one would believe her capable of showing.
“Pardon, it will offend him, he will not be pitied, or relinquish any of the duties or privileges of a gentleman which he can possibly perform. He is proud, we can understand the feeling, so let us humor the poor fellow.”
Mrs. Snowdon bowed silently, and Sir Jasper called out in his hearty, blunt way, as if nothing was amiss with his cousin, “Maurice, I’ve an honor for you. Come and receive it.”
Divining what it was, Treherne noiselessly crossed the room, and with no sign of self-consciousness or embarrassment, was presented to the handsome woman. Thinking his presence might be a restraint, Sir Jasper went away. The instant his back was turned, a change came over both: an almost grim expression replaced the suavity of Treherne’s face, and Mrs. Snowdon’s smile faded suddenly, while a deep flush rose to her brow, as her eyes questioned his beseechingly.
“How dared you come?” he asked below his breath.
“The general insisted.”
“And you could not change his purpose; poor woman!”
“You will not be pitied, neither will I,” and her eyes flashed; then the fire was quenched in tears, and her voice lost all its pride in a pleading tone.
“Forgive me, I longed to see you since your illness, and so I ‘dared’ to come.”
“You shall be gratified; look, quite helpless, crippled for life, perhaps.”
The chair was turned from the groups about the fire, and as he spoke, with a bitter laugh Treherne threw back the skin which covered his knees, and showed her the useless limbs once so strong and fleet. She shrank and paled, put out her hand to arrest him, and cried in an indignant whisper, “No, no, not that! You know I never meant such cruel curiosity, such useless pain to both— ”
“Be still, someone is coming,” he returned inaudibly; adding aloud, as he adjusted the skin and smoothed the rich fur as if speaking of it, “Yes, it is a very fine one, Jasper gave it to me. He spoils me, like a dear, generous-hearted fellow as he is. Ah, Octavia, what can I do for you?”
“Nothing, thank you. I want to recall myself to Mrs. Snowdon’s memory, if she will let me.”
“No need of that; I never forget happy faces and pretty pictures. Two years ago I saw you at your first ball, and longed to be a girl again.”
As she spoke, Mrs. Snowdon pressed the hand shyly offered, and smiled at the spirited face before her, though the shadow in her own eyes deepened as she met the bright glance of the girl.
“How kind you were that night! I remember you let me chatter away about my family, my cousin, and my foolish little affairs with the sweetest patience, and made me very happy by your interest. I was homesick, and Aunt could never bear to hear of those things. It was before your marriage, and all the kinder, for you were the queen of the night, yet had a word for poor little me.”
Mrs. Snowdon was pale to the lips, and Maurice impatiently tapped the arm of his chair, while the girl innocently chatted on.
“I am sorry the general is such an invalid; yet I dare say you find great happiness in taking care of him. It is so pleasant to be of use to those we love.” And as she spoke, Octavia leaned over her cousin to hand him the glove he had dropped.
The affectionate smile that accompanied the act made the color deepen again in Mrs. Snowdon’s cheek, and lit a spark in her softened eyes. Her lips curled and her voice was sweetly sarcastic as she answered, “Yes, it is charming to devote one’s life to these dear invalids, and find one’s reward in their gratitude. Youth, beauty, health, and happiness are small sacrifices if one wins a little comfort for the poor sufferers.”
The girl felt the sarcasm under the soft words and drew back with a troubled face.
Maurice smiled, and glanced from one to the other, saying significantly, “Well for me that my little nurse loves her labor, and finds no sacrifice in it. I am fortunate in my choice.”
“I trust it may prove so—” Mrs. Snowdon got no further, for at that moment dinner was announced, and Sir Jasper took her away. Annon approached with him and offered his arm to Miss Treherne, but with an air of surprise, and a little gesture of refusal, she said coldly:
“My cousin always takes me in to dinner. Be good enough to escort the major.” And with her hand on the arm of the chair, she walked away with a mischievous glitter in her eyes.
Annon frowned and fell back, saying sharply, “Come, Major, what are you doing there?”
A right splendid old dowager was Lady Treherne, in her black velvet and point lace, as she sat erect and stately on a couch by the drawing-room fire, a couch which no one dare occupy in her absence, or share uninvited. The gentlemen were still over their wine, and the three ladies were alone. My lady never dozed in public, Mrs. Snowdon never gossiped, and Octavia never troubled herself to entertain any guests but those of her own age, so long pauses fell, and conversation languished, till Mrs. Snowdon roamed away into the library. As she disappeared, Lady Treherne beckoned to her daughter, who was idly making chords at the grand piano. Seating herself on the ottoman at her mother’s feet, the girl took the still handsome hand in her own and amused herself with examining the old-fashioned jewels that covered it, a pretext for occupying her telltale eyes, as she suspected what was coming.
“My dear, I’m not pleased with you, and I tell you so at once, that you may amend your fault,” began Madame Mère in a tender tone, for though a haughty, imperious woman, she idolized her children.
“What have I done, Mamma?” asked the girl.
“Say rather, what have you left undone. You have been very rude to Mr. Annon. It must not occur again; not only because he is a guest, but because he is your — brother’s friend.”
My lady hesitated over the word “lover,” and changed it, for to her Octavia still seemed a child, and though anxious for the alliance, she forbore to speak openly, lest the girl should turn willful, as she inherited her mother’s high spirit.
“I’m sorry, Mamma. But how can I help it, when he teases me so that I detest him?” said Octavia, petulantly.
“How tease, my love?”
“Why, he follows me about like a dog, puts on a sentimental look when I appear; blushes, and beams, and bows at everything I say, if I am polite; frowns and sighs if I’m not; and glowers tragically at every man I speak to, even poor Maurice. Oh, Mamma, what foolish creatures men are!” And the girl laughed blithely, as she looked up for the first time into her mother’s face.
My lady smiled, as she stroked the bright head at her knee, but asked quickly, “Why say ‘even poor Maurice,’ as if it were impossible for anyone to be jealous of him?”
“But isn’t it, Mamma? I thought strong, well men regarded him as one set apart and done with, since his sad misfortune.”
“Not entirely; while women pity and pet the poor fellow, his comrades will be jealous, absurd as it is.”
“No one pets him but me, and I have a right to do it, for he is my cousin,” said the girl, feeling a touch of jealousy herself.
“Rose and Blanche Talbot outdo you, my dear, and there is no cousinship to excuse them.”
“Then let Frank Annon be jealous of them, and leave me in peace. They promised to come today; I’m afraid something has happened to prevent them.” And Octavia gladly seized upon the new subject. But my lady was not to be eluded.
“They said they could not come till after dinner. They will soon arrive. Before they do so, I must say a few words, Tavia, and I beg you to give heed to them. I desire you to be courteous and amiable to Mr. Annon, and before strangers to be less attentive and affectionate to Maurice. You mean it kindly, but it looks ill, and causes disagreeable remarks.”
“Who blames me for being devoted to my cousin? Can I ever do enough to repay him for his devotion? Mamma, you forget he saved your son’s life.”
Indignant tears filled the girl’s eyes, and she spoke passionately, forgetting that Mrs. Snowdon was within earshot of her raised voice. With a frown my lady laid her hand on her daughter’s lips, saying coldly, “I do not forget, and I religiously discharge my every obligation by every care and comfort it is in my power to bestow. You are young, romantic, and tender-hearted. You think you must give your time and health, must sacrifice your future happiness to this duty. You are wrong, and unless you learn wisdom in season, you will find that you have done harm, not good.”
“God forbid! How can I do that? Tell me, and I will be wise in time.”
Turning the earnest face up to her own, Lady Treherne whispered anxiously, “Has Maurice ever looked or hinted anything of love during this year he has been with us, and you his constant companion?”
“Never, Mamma; he is too honorable and too unhappy to speak or think of that. I am his little nurse, sister, and friend, no more, nor ever shall be. Do not suspect us, or put such fears into my mind, else all our comfort will be spoiled.”
Flushed and eager was the girl, but her clear eyes betrayed no tender confusion as she spoke, and all her thought seemed to be to clear her cousin from the charge of loving her too well. Lady Treherne looked relieved, paused a moment, then said, seriously but gently, “This is well, but, child, I charge you tell me at once, if ever he forgets himself, for this thing cannot be. Once I hoped it might, now it is impossible; remember that he continue a friend and cousin, nothing more. I warn you in time, but if you neglect the warning, Maurice must go. No more of this; recollect my wish regarding Mr. Annon, and let your cousin amuse himself without you in public.”
“Mamma, do you wish me to like Frank Annon?”
The abrupt question rather disturbed my lady, but knowing her daughter’s frank, impetuous nature, she felt somewhat relieved by this candor, and answered decidedly, “I do. He is your equal in all respects; he loves you, Jasper desires it, I approve, and you, being heart-whole, can have no just objection to the alliance.”
“Has he spoken to you?”
“No, to your brother.”
“You wish this much, Mamma?”
“Very much, my child.”
“I will try to please you, then.” And stifling a sigh, the girl kissed her mother with unwonted meekness in tone and manner.
“Now I am well pleased. Be happy, my love. No one will urge or distress you. Let matters take their course, and if this hope of ours can be fulfilled, I shall be relieved of the chief care of my life.”
A sound of girlish voices here broke on their ears, and springing up, Octavia hurried to meet her friends, exclaiming joyfully, “They have come! they have come!”
Two smiling, blooming girls met her at the door, and, being at an enthusiastic age, they gushed in girlish fashion for several minutes, making a pretty group as they stood in each other’s arms, all talking at once, with frequent kisses and little bursts of laughter, as vents for their emotion. Madame Mère welcomed them and then went to join Mrs. Snowdon, leaving the trio to gossip unrestrained.
“My dearest creature, I thought we never should get here, for Papa had a tiresome dinner party, and we were obliged to stay, you know,” cried Rose, the lively sister, shaking out the pretty dress and glancing at herself in the mirror as she fluttered about the room like a butterfly.
“We were dying to come, and so charmed when you asked us, for we haven’t seen you this age, darling,” added Blanche, the pensive one, smoothing her blond curls after a fresh embrace.
“I’m sorry the Ulsters couldn’t come to keep Christmas with us, for we have no gentlemen but Jasper, Frank Annon, and the major. Sad, isn’t it?” said Octavia, with a look of despair, which caused a fresh peal of laughter.
“One apiece, my dear, it might be worse.” And Rose privately decided to appropriate Sir Jasper.
“Where is your cousin?” asked Blanche, with a sigh of sentimental interest.
“He is here, of course. I forget him, but he is not on the flirting list, you know. We must amuse him, and not expect him to amuse us, though really, all the capital suggestions and plans for merrymaking always come from him.”
“He is better, I hope?” asked both sisters with real sympathy, making their young faces womanly and sweet.
“Yes, and has hopes of entire recovery. At least, they tell him so, though Dr. Ashley said there was no chance of it.”
“Dear, dear, how sad! Shall we see him, Tavia?”
“Certainly; he is able to be with us now in the evening, and enjoys society as much as ever. But please take no notice of his infirmity, and make no inquiries beyond the usual ‘How do you do.’ He is sensitive, and hates to be considered an invalid more than ever.”
“How charming it must be to take care of him, he is so accomplished and delightful. I quite envy you,” said Blanche pensively.
“Sir Jasper told us that the General and Mrs. Snowdon were coming. I hope they will, for I’ve a most intense curiosity to see her — ” began Rose.
“Hush, she is here with Mamma! Why curious? What is the mystery? For you look as if there was one,” questioned Octavia under her breath.
The three charming heads bent toward one another as Rose replied in a whisper, “If I knew, I shouldn’t be inquisitive. There was a rumor that she married the old general in a fit of pique, and now repents. I asked Mamma once, but she said such matters were not for young girls to hear, and not a word more would she say. N’importe, I have wits of my own, and I can satisfy myself. The gentlemen are coming! Am I all right, dear?” And the three glanced at one another with a swift scrutiny that nothing could escape, then grouped themselves prettily, and waited, with a little flutter of expectation in each young heart.
In came the gentlemen, and instantly a new atmosphere seemed to pervade the drawing room, for with the first words uttered, several romances began. Sir Jasper was taken possession of by Rose, Blanche intended to devote herself to Maurice Treherne, but Annon intercepted her, and Octavia was spared any effort at politeness by this unexpected move on the part of her lover.
“He is angry, and wishes to pique me by devoting himself to Blanche. I wish he would, with all my heart, and leave me in peace. Poor Maurice, he expects me, and I long to go to him, but must obey Mamma.” And Octavia went to join the group formed by my lady, Mrs. Snowdon, the general, and the major.
The two young couples flirted in different parts of the room, and Treherne sat alone, watching them all with eyes that pierced below the surface, reading the hidden wishes, hopes, and fears that ruled them. A singular expression sat on his face as he turned from Octavia’s clear countenance to Mrs. Snowdon’s gloomy one. He leaned his head upon his hand and fell into deep thought, for he was passing through one of those fateful moments which come to us all, and which may make or mar a life. Such moments come when least looked for: an unexpected meeting, a peculiar mood, some trivial circumstance, or careless word produces it, and often it is gone before we realize its presence, leaving aftereffects to show us what we have gained or lost. Treherne was conscious that the present hour, and the acts that filled it, possessed unusual interest, and would exert an unusual influence on his life. Before him was the good and evil genius of his nature in the guise of those two women. Edith Snowdon had already tried her power, and accident only had saved him. Octavia, all unconscious as she was, never failed to rouse and stimulate the noblest attributes of mind and heart. A year spent in her society had done much for him, and he loved her with a strange mingling of passion, reverence, and gratitude. He knew why Edith Snowdon came, he felt that the old fascination had not lost its charm, and though fear was unknown to him, he was ill pleased at the sight of the beautiful, dangerous woman. On the other hand, he saw that Lady Treherne desired her daughter to shun him and smile on Annon; he acknowledged that he had no right to win the young creature, crippled and poor as he was, and a pang of jealous pain wrung his heart as he watched her.
Then a sense of power came to him, for helpless, poor, and seemingly an object of pity, he yet felt that he held the honor, peace, and happiness of nearly every person present in his hands. It was a strong temptation to this man, so full of repressed passion and power, so set apart and shut out from the more stirring duties and pleasures of life. A few words from his lips, and the pity all felt for him would be turned to fear, respect, and admiration. Why not utter them, and enjoy all that was possible? He owed the Trehernes nothing; why suffer injustice, dependence, and the compassion that wounds a proud man deepest? Wealth, love, pleasure might be his with a breath. Why not secure them now?
His pale face flushed, his eye kindled, and his thin hand lay clenched like a vise as these thoughts passed rapidly through his mind. A look, a word at that moment would sway him; he felt it, and leaned forward, waiting in secret suspense for the glance, the speech which should decide him for good or ill. Who shall say what subtle instinct caused Octavia to turn and smile at him with a wistful, friendly look that warmed his heart? He met it with an answering glance, which thrilled her strangely, for love, gratitude, and some mysterious intelligence met and mingled in the brilliant yet soft expression which swiftly shone and faded in her face. What it was she could not tell; she only felt that it filled her with an indescribable emotion never experienced before. In an instant it all passed, Lady Treherne spoke to her, and Blanche Talbot addressed Maurice, wondering, as she did so, if the enchanting smile he wore was meant for her.
“Mr. Annon having mercifully set me free, I came to try to cheer your solitude; but you look as if solitude made you happier than society does the rest of us,” she said without her usual affectation, for his manner impressed her.
“You are very kind and very welcome. I do find pleasures to beguile my loneliness, which gayer people would not enjoy, and it is well that I can, else I should turn morose and tyrannical, and doom some unfortunate to entertain me all day long.” He answered with a gentle courtesy which was his chief attraction to womankind.
“Pray tell me some of your devices, I’m often alone in spirit, if not so in the flesh, for Rose, though a dear girl, is not congenial, and I find no kindred soul.”
A humorous glimmer came to Treherne’s eyes, as the sentimental damsel beamed a soft sigh and drooped her long lashes effectively. Ignoring the topic of “kindred souls,” he answered coldly, “My favorite amusement is studying the people around me. It may be rude, but tied to my corner, I cannot help watching the figures around me, and discovering their little plots and plans. I’m getting very expert, and really surprise myself sometimes by the depth of my researches.”
“I can believe it; your eyes look as if they possessed that gift. Pray don’t study me.” And the girl shrank away with an air of genuine alarm.
Treherne smiled involuntarily, for he had read the secret of that shallow heart long ago, and was too generous to use the knowledge, however flattering it might be to him. In a reassuring tone he said, turning away the keen eyes she feared, “I give you my word I never will, charming as it might be to study the white pages of a maidenly heart. I find plenty of others to read, so rest tranquil, Miss Blanche.”
“Who interests you most just now?” asked the girl, coloring with pleasure at his words. “Mrs. Snowdon looks like one who has a romance to be read, if you have the skill.”
“I have read it. My lady is my study just now. I thought I knew her well, but of late she puzzles me. Human minds are more full of mysteries than any written book and more changeable than the cloud shapes in the air.”
“A fine old lady, but I fear her so intensely I should never dare to try to read her, as you say.” Blanche looked toward the object of discussion as she spoke, and added, “Poor Tavia, how forlorn she seems. Let me ask her to join us, may I?”
“With all my heart” was the quick reply.
Blanche glided away but did not return, for my lady kept her as well as her daughter.
“That test satisfies me; well, I submit for a time, but I think I can conquer my aunt yet.” And with a patient sigh Treherne turned to observe Mrs. Snowdon.
She now stood by the fire talking with Sir Jasper, a handsome, reckless, generous-hearted young gentleman, who very plainly showed his great admiration for the lady. When he came, she suddenly woke up from her listless mood and became as brilliantly gay as she had been unmistakably melancholy before. As she chatted, she absently pushed to and fro a small antique urn of bronze on the chimneypiece, and in doing so she more than once gave Treherne a quick, significant glance, which he answered at last by a somewhat haughty nod. Then, as if satisfied, she ceased toying with the ornament and became absorbed in Sir Jasper’s gallant badinage.
The instant her son approached Mrs. Snowdon, Madame Mère grew anxious, and leaving Octavia to her friends and lover, she watched Jasper. But her surveillance availed little, for she could neither see nor hear anything amiss, yet could not rid herself of the feeling that some mutual understanding existed between them. When the party broke up for the night, she lingered till all were gone but her son and nephew.
“Well, Madame Ma Mère, what troubles you?” asked Sir Jasper, as she looked anxiously into his face before bestowing her good-night kiss.
“I cannot tell, yet I feel ill at ease. Remember, my son, that you are the pride of my heart, and any sin or shame of yours would kill me. Good night, Maurice.” And with a stately bow she swept away.
Lounging with both elbows on the low chimneypiece, Sir Jasper smiled at his mother’s fears, and said to his cousin, the instant they were alone, “She is worried about E.S. Odd, isn’t it, what instinctive antipathies women take to one another?”
“Why did you ask E.S. here?” demanded Treherne.
“My dear fellow, how could I help it? My mother wanted the general, my father’s friend, and of course his wife must be asked also. I couldn’t tell my mother that the lady had been a most arrant coquette, to put it mildly, and had married the old man in a pet, because my cousin and I declined to be ruined by her.”
“You could have told her what mischief she makes wherever she goes, and for Octavia’s sake have deferred the general’s visit for a time. I warn you, Jasper, harm will come of it.”
“To whom, you or me?”
“To both, perhaps, certainly to you. She was disappointed once when she lost us both by wavering between your title and my supposed fortune. She is miserable with the old man, and her only hope is in his death, for he is very feeble. You are free, and doubly attractive now, so beware, or she will entangle you before you know it.”
“Thanks, Mentor. I’ve no fear, and shall merely amuse myself for a week — they stay no longer.” And with a careless laugh, Sir Jasper strolled away.
“Much mischief may be done in a week, and this is the beginning of it,” muttered Treherne, as he raised himself to look under the bronze vase for the note. It was gone!
WHO WAS IT?
Who had taken it? This question tormented Treherne all that sleepless night. He suspected three persons, for only these had approached the fire after the note was hidden. He had kept his eye on it, he thought, till the stir of breaking up. In that moment it must have been removed by the major, Frank Annon, or my lady; Sir Jasper was out of the question, for he never touched an ornament in the drawing room since he had awkwardly demolished a whole étagère of costly trifles, to his mother’s and sister’s great grief. The major evidently suspected something, Annon was jealous, and my lady would be glad of a pretext to remove her daughter from his reach. Trusting to his skill in reading faces, he waited impatiently for morning, resolving to say nothing to anyone but Mrs. Snowdon, and from her merely to inquire what the note contained.
Treherne usually was invisible till lunch, often till dinner; therefore, fearing to excite suspicion by unwonted activity, he did not appear till noon. The mailbag had just been opened, and everyone was busy over their letters, but all looked up to exchange a word with the newcomer, and Octavia impulsively turned to meet him, then checked herself and hid her suddenly crimsoned face behind a newspaper. Treherne’s eye took in everything, and saw at once in the unusually late arrival of the mail a pretext for discovering the pilferer of the note.
“All have letters but me, yet I expected one last night. Major, have you got it among yours?” And as he spoke, Treherne fixed his penetrating eyes full on the person he addressed.
With no sign of consciousness, no trace of confusion, the major carefully turned over his pile, and replied in the most natural manner, “Not a trace of it; I wish there was, for nothing annoys me more than any delay or mistake about my letters.”
He knows nothing of it, thought Treherne, and turned to Annon, who was deep in a long epistle from some intimate friend, with a talent for imparting news, to judge from the reader’s interest.
“Annon, I appeal to you, for I must discover who has robbed me of my letter.”
“I have but one, read it, if you will, and satisfy yourself” was the brief reply.
“No, thank you. I merely asked in joke; it is doubtless among my lady’s. Jasper’s letters and mine often get mixed, and my lady takes care of his for him. I think you must have it, Aunt.”
Lady Treherne looked up impatiently. “My dear Maurice, what a coil about a letter! We none of us have it, so do not punish us for the sins of your correspondent or the carelessness of the post.”
She was not the thief, for she is always intensely polite when she intends to thwart me, thought Treherne, and, apologizing for his rudeness in disturbing them, he rolled himself to his nook in a sunny window and became apparently absorbed in a new magazine.
Mrs. Snowdon was opening the general’s letters for him, and, having finished her little task, she roamed away into the library, as if in search of a book. Presently returning with one, she approached Treherne, and, putting it into his hand, said, in her musically distinct voice, “Be so kind as to find for me the passage you spoke of last night. I am curious to see it.”
Instantly comprehending her stratagem, he opened it with apparent carelessness, secured the tiny note laid among the leaves, and, selecting a passage at hazard, returned her book and resumed his own. Behind the cover of it he unfolded and read these words:
I understand, but do not be anxious; the line I left was merely this — ”I must see you alone, tell me when and where.” No one can make much of it, and I will discover the thief before dinner. Do nothing, but watch to whom I speak first on entering, when we meet in the evening, and beware of that person.
Quietly transferring the note to the fire with the wrapper of the magazine, he dismissed the matter from his mind and left Mrs. Snowdon to play detective as she pleased, while he busied himself about his own affairs.
It was a clear, bright December day, and when the young people separated to prepare for a ride, while the general and the major sunned themselves on the terrace, Lady Treherne said to her nephew, “I am going for an airing in the pony carriage. Will you be my escort, Maurice?”
“With pleasure,” replied the young man, well knowing what was in store for him.
My lady was unusually taciturn and grave, yet seemed anxious to say something which she found difficult to utter. Treherne saw this, and ended an awkward pause by dashing boldly into the subject which occupied both.
“I think you want to say something to me about Tavie, Aunt. Am I right?”
“Then let me spare you the pain of beginning, and prove my sincerity by openly stating the truth, as far as I am concerned. I love her very dearly, but I am not mad enough to dream of telling her so. I know that it is impossible, and I relinquish my hopes. Trust me. I will keep silent and see her marry Annon without a word of complaint, if you will it. I see by her altered manner that you have spoken to her, and that my little friend and nurse is to be mine no longer. Perhaps you are wise, but if you do this on my account, it is in vain — the mischief is done, and while I live I shall love my cousin. If you do it to spare her, I am dumb, and will go away rather than cause her a care or pain.”
“Do you really mean this, Maurice?” And Lady Treherne looked at him with a changed and softened face.
Turning upon her, Treherne showed her a countenance full of suffering and sincerity, of resignation and resolve, as he said earnestly, “I do mean it; prove me in any way you please. I am not a bad fellow, Aunt, and I desire to be better. Since my misfortune I’ve had time to test many things, myself among others, and in spite of many faults, I do cherish the wish to keep my soul honest and true, even though my body be a wreck. It is easy to say these things, but in spite of temptation, I think I can stand firm, if you trust me.”
“My dear boy, I do trust you, and thank you gratefully for this frankness. I never forget that I owe Jasper’s life to you, and never expect to repay that debt. Remember this when I seem cold or unkind, and remember also that I say now, had you been spared this affliction, I would gladly have given you my girl. But — ”
“But, Aunt, hear one thing,” broke in Treherne. “They tell me that any sudden and violent shock of surprise, joy, or sorrow may do for me what they hope time will achieve. I said nothing of this, for it is but a chance; yet, while there is any hope, need I utterly renounce Octavia?”
“It is hard to refuse, and yet I cannot think it wise to build upon a chance so slight. Once let her have you, and both are made unhappy, if the hope fail. No, Maurice, it is better to be generous, and leave her free to make her own happiness elsewhere. Annon loves her, she is heart-whole, and will soon learn to love him, if you are silent. My poor boy, it seems cruel, but I must say it.”
“Shall I go away, Aunt?” was all his answer, very firmly uttered, though his lips were white.
“Not yet, only leave them to themselves, and hide your trouble if you can. Yet, if you prefer, you shall go to town, and Benson shall see that you are comfortable. Your health will be a reason, and I will come, or write often, if you are homesick. It shall depend on you, for I want to be just and kind in this hard case. You shall decide.”
“Then I will stay. I can hide my love; and to see them together will soon cease to wound me, if Octavia is happy.”
“So let it rest then, for a time. You shall miss your companion as little as possible, for I will try to fill her place. Forgive me, Maurice, and pity a mother’s solicitude, for these two are the last of many children, and I am a widow now.”
Lady Treherne’s voice faltered, and if any selfish hope or plan lingered in her nephew’s mind, that appeal banished it and touched his better nature. Pressing her hand he said gently, “Dear Aunt, do not lament over me. I am one set apart for afflictions, yet I will not be conquered by them. Let us forget my youth and be friendly counselors together for the good of the two whom we both love. I must say a word about Jasper, and you will not press me to explain more than I can without breaking my promise.”
“Thank you, thank you! It is regarding that woman, I know. Tell me all you can; I will not be importunate, but I disliked her the instant I saw her, beautiful and charming as she seems.”
“When my cousin and I were in Paris, just before my illness, we met her. She was with her father then, a gay old man who led a life of pleasure, and was no fit guardian for a lovely daughter. She knew our story and, having fascinated both, paused to decide which she would accept: Jasper, for his title, or me, for my fortune. This was before my uncle changed his will, and I believed myself his heir; but, before she made her choice, something (don’t ask me what, if you please) occurred to send us from Paris. On our return voyage we were wrecked, and then came my illness, disinheritance, and helplessness. Edith Dubarry heard the story, but rumor reported it falsely, and she believed both of us had lost the fortune. Her father died penniless, and in a moment of despair she married the general, whose wealth surrounds her with the luxury she loves, and whose failing health will soon restore her liberty — ”
“And then, Maurice?” interrupted my lady.
“She hopes to win Jasper, I think.”
“Never! We must prevent that at all costs. I had rather see him dead before me, than the husband of such a woman. Why is she permitted to visit homes like mine? I should have been told this sooner,” exclaimed my lady angrily.
“I should have told you had I known it, and I reproved Jasper for his neglect. Do not be needlessly troubled, Aunt. There is no blemish on Mrs. Snowdon’s name, and, as the wife of a brave and honorable man, she is received without question; for beauty, grace, or tact like hers can make their way anywhere. She stays but a week, and I will devote myself to her; this will save Jasper, and, if necessary, convince Tavie of my indifference — ” Then he paused to stifle a sigh.
“But yourself, have you no fears for your own peace, Maurice? You must not sacrifice happiness or honor, for me or mine.”
“I am safe; I love my cousin, and that is my shield. Whatever happens remember that I tried to serve you, and sincerely endeavored to forget myself.”
“God bless you, my son! Let me call you so, and feel that, though I deny you my daughter, I give you heartily a mother’s care and affection.”
Lady Treherne was as generous as she was proud, and her nephew had conquered her by confidence and submission. He acted no part, yet, even in relinquishing all, he cherished a hope that he might yet win the heart he coveted. Silently they parted, but from that hour a new and closer bond existed between the two, and exerted an unsuspected influence over the whole household.
* * * * *
Maurice waited with some impatience for Mrs. Snowdon’s entrance, not only because of his curiosity to see if she had discovered the thief, but because of the part he had taken upon himself to play. He was equal to it, and felt a certain pleasure in it for a threefold reason. It would serve his aunt and cousin, would divert his mind from its own cares, and, perhaps by making Octavia jealous, waken love; for, though he had chosen the right, he was but a man, and moreover a lover.
Mrs. Snowdon was late. She always was, for her toilet was elaborate, and she liked to enjoy its effects upon others. The moment she entered Treherne’s eye was on her, and to his intense surprise and annoyance she addressed Octavia, saying blandly, “My dear Miss Treherne, I’ve been admiring your peacocks. Pray let me see you feed them tomorrow. Miss Talbot says it is a charming sight.”
“If you are on the terrace just after lunch, you will find them there, and may feed them yourself, if you like” was the cool, civil reply.
“She looks like a peacock herself in that splendid green and gold dress, doesn’t she?” whispered Rose to Sir Jasper, with a wicked laugh.
“Faith, so she does. I wish Tavie’s birds had voices like Mrs. Snowdon’s; their squalling annoys me intensely.”
“I rather like it, for it is honest, and no malice or mischief is hidden behind it. I always distrust those smooth, sweet voices; they are insincere. I like a full, clear tone; sharp, if you please, but decided and true.”
“Well said, Octavia. I agree with you, and your own is a perfect sample of the kind you describe.” And Treherne smiled as he rolled by to join Mrs. Snowdon, who evidently waited for him, while Octavia turned to her brother to defend her pets.
“Are you sure? How did you discover?” said Maurice, affecting to admire the lady’s bouquet, as he paused beside her.
“I suspected it the moment I saw her this morning. She is no actress; and dislike, distrust, and contempt were visible in her face when we met. Till you so cleverly told me my note was lost, I fancied she was disturbed about her brother — or you.”
A sudden pause and a keen glance followed the last softly uttered word, but Treherne met it with an inscrutable smile and a quiet “Well, what next?”
“The moment I learned that you did not get the note I was sure she had it, and, knowing that she must have seen me put it there, in spite of her apparent innocence, I quietly asked her for it. This surprised her, this robbed the affair of any mystery, and I finished her perplexity by sending it to the major the moment she returned it to me, as if it had been intended for him. She begged pardon, said her brother was thoughtless, and she watched over him lest he should get into mischief; professed to think I meant the line for him, and behaved like a charming simpleton, as she is.”
“Quite a tumult about nothing. Poor little Tavie! You doubtlessly frightened her so that we may safely correspond hereafter.”
“You may give me an answer, now and here.”
“Very well, meet me on the terrace tomorrow morning; the peacocks will make the meeting natural enough. I usually loiter away an hour or two there, in the sunny part of the day.”
“But the girl?”
“I’ll send her away.”
“You speak as if it would be an easy thing to do.”
“It will, both easy and pleasant.”
“Now you are mysterious or uncomplimentary. You either care nothing for a tête-à-tête with her, or you will gladly send her out of my way. Which is it?”
“You shall decide. Can I have this?”
She looked at him as he touched a rose with a warning glance, for the flower was both an emblem of love and of silence. Did he mean to hint that he recalled the past, or to warn her that someone was near? She leaned from the shadow of the curtain where she sat, and caught a glimpse of a shadow gliding away.
“Who was it?” she asked, below her breath.
“A Rose,” he answered, laughing. Then, as if the danger was over, he said, “How will you account to the major for the message you sent him?”
“Easily, by fabricating some interesting perplexity in which I want sage counsel. He will be flattered, and by seeming to take him into my confidence, I can hoodwink the excellent man to my heart’s content, for he annoys me by his odd way of mounting guard over me at all times. Now take me in to dinner, and be your former delightful self.”
“That is impossible,” he said, yet proved that it was not.
FEEDING THE PEACOCKS
It was indeed a charming sight, the twelve stately birds perched on the broad stone balustrade, or prancing slowly along the terrace, with the sun gleaming on their green and golden necks and the glories of their gorgeous plumes, widespread, or sweeping like rich trains behind them. In pretty contrast to the splendid creatures was their young mistress, in her simple morning dress and fur-trimmed hood and mantle, as she stood feeding the tame pets from her hand, calling their fanciful names, laughing at their pranks, and heartily enjoying the winter sunshine, the fresh wind, and the girlish pastime. As Treherne slowly approached, he watched her with lover’s eyes, and found her very sweet and blithe, and dearer in his sight than ever. She had shunned him carefully all the day before, had parted at night with a hasty handshake, and had not come as usual to bid him good-morning in the library. He had taken no notice of the change as yet, but now, remembering his promise to his aunt, he resolved to let the girl know that he fully understood the relation which henceforth was to exist between them.
“Good-morning, cousin. Shall I drive you away, if I take a turn or two here?” he said, in a cheerful tone, but with a half-reproachful glance.
She looked at him an instant, then went to him with extended hand and cheeks rosier than before, while her frank eyes filled, and her voice had a traitorous tremor in it, as she said, impetuously: “I will be myself for a moment, in spite of everything. Maurice, don’t think me unkind, don’t reproach me, or ask my leave to come where I am. There is a reason for the change you see in me; it’s not caprice, it is obedience.”
“My dear girl, I know it. I meant to speak of it, and show you that I understand. Annon is a good fellow, as worthy of you as any man can be, and I wish you all the happiness you deserve.”
“Do you?” And her eyes searched his face keenly.
“Yes; do you doubt it?” And so well did he conceal his love, that neither face, voice, nor manner betrayed a hint of it.
Her eyes fell, a cloud passed over her clear countenance, and she withdrew her hand, as if to caress the hungry bird that gently pecked at the basket she held. As if to change the conversation, she said playfully, “Poor Argus, you have lost your fine feathers, and so all desert you, except kind little Juno, who never forgets her friends. There, take it all, and share between you.”
Treherne smiled, and said quickly, “I am a human Argus, and you have been a kind little Juno to me since I lost my plumes. Continue to be so, and you will find me a very faithful friend.”
“I will.” And as she answered, her old smile came back and her eyes met his again.
“Thanks! Now we shall get on happily. I don’t ask or expect the old life — that is impossible. I knew that when lovers came, the friend would fall into the background; and I am content to be second, where I have so long been first. Do not think you neglect me; be happy with your lover, dear, and when you have no pleasanter amusement, come and see old Maurice.”
She turned her head away, that he might not see the angry color in her cheeks, the trouble in her eyes, and when she spoke, it was to say petulantly, “I wish Jasper and Mamma would leave me in peace. I hate lovers and want none. If Frank teases, I’ll go into a convent and so be rid of him.”
Maurice laughed, and turned her face toward himself, saying, in his persuasive voice, “Give him a trial first, to please your mother. It can do no harm and may amuse you. Frank is already lost, and, as you are heart-whole, why not see what you can do for him? I shall have a new study, then, and not miss you so much.”
“You are very kind; I’ll do my best. I wish Mrs. Snowdon would come, if she is coming; I’ve an engagement at two, and Frank will look tragical if I’m not ready. He is teaching me billiards, and I really like the game, though I never thought I should.”
“That looks well. I hope you’ll learn a double lesson, and Annon find a docile pupil in both.”
“You are very pale this morning; are you in pain, Maurice?” suddenly asked Octavia, dropping the tone of assumed ease and gaiety under which she had tried to hide her trouble.
“Yes, but it will soon pass. Mrs. Snowdon is coming. I saw her at the hall door a moment ago. I will show her the peacocks, if you want to go. She won’t mind the change, I dare say, as you don’t like her, and I do.”
“No, I am sure of that. It was an arrangement, perhaps? I understand. I will not play Mademoiselle De Trop.”
Sudden fire shone in the girl’s eyes, sudden contempt curled her lip, and a glance full of meaning went from her cousin to the door, where Mrs. Snowdon appeared, waiting for her maid to bring her some additional wrappings.
“You allude to the note you stole. How came you to play that prank, Tavie?” asked Treherne tranquilly.
“I saw her put it under the urn. I thought it was for Jasper, and I took it,” she said boldly.
“Why for Jasper?”
“I remembered his speaking of meeting her long ago, and describing her beauty enthusiastically — and so did you.”
“You have a good memory.”
“I have for everything concerning those I love. I observed her manner of meeting my brother, his devotion to her, and, when they stood laughing together before the fire, I felt sure that she wished to charm him again.”
“Again? Then she did charm him once?” asked Treherne, anxious to know how much Jasper had told his sister.
“He always denied it, and declared that you were the favorite.”
“Then why not think the note for me?” he asked.
“I do now” was the sharp answer.
“But she told you it was for the major, and sent it.”
“She deceived me; I am not surprised. I am glad Jasper is safe, and I wish you a pleasant tête-à-tête.”
Bowing with unwonted dignity, Octavia set down her basket, and walked away in one direction as Mrs. Snowdon approached in another.
“I have done it now,” sighed Treherne, turning from the girlish figure to watch the stately creature who came sweeping toward him with noiseless grace.
Brilliancy and splendor became Mrs. Snowdon; she enjoyed luxury, and her beauty made many things becoming which in a plainer woman would have been out of taste, and absurd. She had wrapped herself in a genuine Eastern burnous of scarlet, blue, and gold; the hood drawn over her head framed her fine face in rich hues, and the great gilt tassels shone against her rippling black hair. She wore it with grace, and the barbaric splendor of the garment became her well. The fresh air touched her cheeks with a delicate color; her usually gloomy eyes were brilliant now, and the smile that parted her lips was full of happiness.
“Welcome, Cleopatra!” cried Treherne, with difficulty repressing a laugh, as the peacocks screamed and fled before the rustling amplitude of her drapery.
“I might reply by calling you Thaddeus of Warsaw, for you look very romantic and Polish with your pale, pensive face, and your splendid furs,” she answered, as she paused beside him with admiration very visibly expressed in her eyes.
Treherne disliked the look, and rather abruptly said, as he offered her the basket of bread, “I have disposed of my cousin, and offered to do the honors of the peacocks. Here they are — will you feed them?”
“No, thank you — I care nothing for the fowls, as you know; I came to speak to you,” she said impatiently.
“I am at your service.”
“I wish to ask you a question or two — is it permitted?”
“What man ever refused Mrs. Snowdon a request?”
“Nay, no compliments; from you they are only satirical evasions. I was deceived when abroad, and rashly married that old man. Tell me truly how things stand.”
“Jasper has all. I have nothing.”
“I am glad of it.”
“Many thanks for the hearty speech. You at least speak sincerely,” he said bitterly.
“I do, Maurice — I do; let me prove it.”
Treherne’s chair was close beside the balustrade. Mrs. Snowdon leaned on the carved railing, with her back to the house and her face screened by a tall urn. Looking steadily at him, she said rapidly and low, “You thought I wavered between you and Jasper, when we parted two years ago. I did; but it was not between title and fortune that I hesitated. It was between duty and love. My father, a fond, foolish old man, had set his heart on seeing me a lady. I was his all; my beauty was his delight, and no untitled man was deemed worthy of me. I loved him tenderly. You may doubt this, knowing how selfish, reckless, and vain I am, but I have a heart, and with better training had been a better woman. No matter, it is too late now. Next my father, I loved you. Nay, hear me — I will clear myself in your eyes. I mean no wrong to the general. He is kind, indulgent, generous; I respect him — I am grateful, and while he lives, I shall be true to him.”
“Then be silent now. Do not recall the past, Edith; let it sleep, for both our sakes,” began Treherne; but she checked him imperiously.
“It shall, when I am done. I loved you, Maurice; for, of all the gay, idle, pleasure-seeking men I saw about me, you were the only one who seemed to have a thought beyond the folly of the hour. Under the seeming frivolity of your life lay something noble, heroic, and true. I felt that you had a purpose, that your present mood was but transitory — a young man’s holiday, before the real work of his life began. This attracted, this won me; for even in the brief regard you then gave me, there was an earnestness no other man had shown. I wanted your respect; I longed to earn your love, to share your life, and prove that even in my neglected nature slept the power of canceling a frivolous past by a noble future. Oh, Maurice, had you lingered one week more, I never should have been the miserable thing I am!”
There her voice faltered and failed, for all the bitterness of lost love, peace, and happiness sounded in the pathetic passion of that exclamation. She did not weep, for tears seldom dimmed those tragical eyes of hers; but she wrung her hands in mute despair, and looked down into the frost-blighted gardens below, as if she saw there a true symbol of her own ruined life. Treherne uttered not a word, but set his teeth with an almost fierce glance toward the distant figure of Sir Jasper, who was riding gaily away, like one unburdened by a memory or a care.
Hurriedly Mrs. Snowdon went on, “My father begged and commanded me to choose your cousin. I could not break his heart, and asked for time, hoping to soften him. While I waited, that mysterious affair hurried you from Paris, and then came the wreck, the illness, and the rumor that old Sir Jasper had disinherited both nephews. They told me you were dying, and I became a passive instrument in my father’s hands. I promised to recall and accept your cousin, but the old man died before it was done, and then I cared not what became of me.
“General Snowdon was my father’s friend; he pitied me; he saw my desolate, destitute state, my despair and helplessness. He comforted, sustained, and saved me. I was grateful; and when he offered me his heart and home, I accepted them. He knew I had no love to give; but as a friend, a daughter, I would gladly serve him, and make his declining years as happy as I could. It was all over, when I heard that you were alive, afflicted, and poor. I longed to come and live for you. My new bonds became heavy fetters then, my wealth oppressed me, and I was doubly wretched — for I dared not tell my trouble, and it nearly drove me mad. I have seen you now; I know that you are happy; I read your cousin’s love and see a peaceful life in store for you. This must content me, and I must learn to bear it as I can.”
She paused, breathless and pale, and walked rapidly along the terrace, as if to hide or control the agitation that possessed her.
Treherne still sat silent, but his heart leaped within him, as he thought, “She sees that Octavia loves me! A woman’s eye is quick to detect love in another, and she asserts what I begin to hope. My cousin’s manner just now, her dislike of Annon, her new shyness with me; it may be true, and if it is — Heaven help me — what am I saying! I must not hope, nor wish, nor dream; I must renounce and forget.”
He leaned his head upon his hand, and sat so still Mrs. Snowdon rejoined him, pale, but calm and self-possessed. As she drew near, she marked his attitude, the bitter sadness of his face, and hope sprang up within her. Perhaps she was mistaken; perhaps he did not love his cousin; perhaps he still remembered the past, and still regretted the loss of the heart she had just laid bare before him. Her husband was failing, and might die any day. And then, free, rich, beautiful, and young, what might she not become to Treherne, helpless, poor, and ambitious? With all her faults, she was generous, and this picture charmed her fancy, warmed her heart, and comforted her pain.
“Maurice,” she said softly, pausing again beside him, “if I mistake you and your hopes, it is because I dare ask nothing for myself; but if ever a time shall come when I have liberty to give or help, ask of me anything, and it is gladly yours.”
He understood her, pitied her, and, seeing that she found consolation in a distant hope, he let her enjoy it while she might. Gravely, yet gratefully, he spoke, and pressed the hand extended to him with an impulsive gesture.
“Generous as ever, Edith, and impetuously frank. Thank you for your sincerity, your kindness, and the affection you once gave me. I say ‘once,’ for now duty, truth, and honor bar us from each other. My life must be solitary, yet I shall find work to do, and learn to be content. You owe all devotion to the good old man who loves you, and will not fail him, I am sure. Leave the future and the past, but let us make the present what it may be — a time to forgive and forget, to take heart and begin anew. Christmas is a fitting time for such resolves, and the birth of friendship such as ours may be.”
Something in his tone and manner struck her, and, eyeing him with soft wonder, she exclaimed, “How changed you are!”
“Need you tell me that?” And he glanced at his helpless limbs with a bitter yet pathetic look of patience.
“No, no — not so! I mean in mind, not body. Once you were gay and careless, eager and fiery, like Jasper; now you are grave and quiet, or cheerful, and so very kind. Yet, in spite of illness and loss, you seem twice the man you were, and something wins respect, as well as admiration — and love.”
Her dark eyes filled as the last word left her lips, and the beauty of a touched heart shone in her face. Maurice looked up quickly, asking with sudden earnestness, “Do you see it? Then it is true. Yes, I am changed, thank God! And she has done it.”
“Who?” demanded his companion jealously.
“Octavia. Unconsciously, yet surely, she has done much for me, and this year of seeming loss and misery has been the happiest, most profitable of my life. I have often heard that afflictions were the best teachers, and I believe it now.”
Mrs. Snowdon shook her head sadly.
“Not always; they are tormentors to some. But don’t preach, Maurice. I am still a sinner, though you incline to sainthood, and I have one question more to ask. What was it that took you and Jasper so suddenly away from Paris?”
“That I can never tell you.”
“I shall discover it for myself, then.”
“It is impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible to a determined woman.”
“You can neither wring, surprise, nor bribe this secret from the two persons who hold it. I beg of you to let it rest,” said Treherne earnestly.
“I have a clue, and I shall follow it; for I am convinced that something is wrong, and you are — ”
“Dear Mrs. Snowdon, are you so charmed with the birds that you forget your fellow-beings, or so charmed with one fellow-being that you forget the birds?”
As the sudden question startled both, Rose Talbot came along the terrace, with hands full of holly and a face full of merry mischief, adding as she vanished, “I shall tell Tavie that feeding the peacocks is such congenial amusement for lovers, she and Mr. Annon had better try it.”
“Saucy gypsy!” muttered Treherne.
But Mrs. Snowdon said, with a smile of double meaning, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.”
UNDER THE MISTLETOE
Unusually gay and charming the three young friends looked, dressed alike in fleecy white with holly wreaths in their hair, as they slowly descended the wide oaken stairway arm in arm. A footman was lighting the hall lamps, for the winter dusk gathered early, and the girls were merrily chatting about the evening’s festivity when suddenly a loud, long shriek echoed through the hall. A heavy glass shade fell from the man’s hand with a crash, and the young ladies clung to one another aghast, for mortal terror was in the cry, and a dead silence followed it.
“What was it, John?” demanded Octavia, very pale, but steady in a moment.
“I’ll go and see, miss.” And the man hurried away.
“Where did the dreadful scream come from?” asked Rose, collecting her wits as rapidly as possible.
“Above us somewhere. Oh, let us go down among people; I am frightened to death,” whispered Blanche, trembling and faint.
Hurrying into the parlor, they found only Annon and the major, both looking startled, and both staring out of the windows.
“Did you hear it? What could it be? Don’t go and leave us!” cried the girls in a breath, as they rushed in.
The gentlemen had heard, couldn’t explain the cry, and were quite ready to protect the pretty creatures who clustered about them like frightened fawns. John speedily appeared, looking rather wild, and as eager to tell his tale as they to listen.
“It’s Patty, one of the maids, miss, in a fit. She went up to the north gallery to see that the fires was right, for it takes a power of wood to warm the gallery even enough for dancing, as you know, miss. Well, it was dark, for the fires was low and her candle went out as she whisked open the door, being flurried, as the maids always is when they go in there. Halfway down the gallery she says she heard a rustling, and stopped. She’s the pluckiest of ‘em all, and she called out, ‘I see you!’ thinking it was some of us trying to fright her. Nothing answered, and she went on a bit, when suddenly the fire flared up one flash, and there right before her was the ghost.”
“Don’t be foolish, John. Tell us what it was,” said Octavia sharply, though her face whitened and her heart sank as the last word passed the man’s lips.
“It was a tall, black figger, miss, with a dead-white face and a black hood. She see it plain, and turned to go away, but she hadn’t gone a dozen steps when there it was again before her, the same tall, dark thing with the dead-white face looking out from the black hood. It lifted its arm as if to hold her, but she gave a spring and dreadful screech, and ran to Mrs. Benson’s room, where she dropped in a fit.”
“How absurd to be frightened by the shadows of the figures in armor that stand along the gallery!” said Rose, boldly enough, though she would have declined entering the gallery without a light.
“Nay, I don’t wonder, it’s a ghostly place at night. How is the poor thing?” asked Blanche, still hanging on the major’s arm in her best attitude.
“If Mamma knows nothing of it, tell Mrs. Benson to keep it from her, please. She is not well, and such things annoy her very much,” said Octavia, adding as the man turned away, “Did anyone look in the gallery after Patty told her tale?”
“No, miss. I’ll go and do it myself; I’m not afraid of man, ghost, or devil, saving your presence, ladies,” replied John.
“Where is Sir Jasper?” suddenly asked the major.
“Here I am. What a deuce of a noise someone has been making. It disturbed a capital dream. Why, Tavie, what is it?” And Sir Jasper came out of the library with a sleepy face and tumbled hair.
They told him the story, whereat he laughed heartily, and said the maids were a foolish set to be scared by a shadow. While he still laughed and joked, Mrs. Snowdon entered, looking alarmed, and anxious to know the cause of the confusion.
“How interesting! I never knew you kept a ghost. Tell me all about it, Sir Jasper, and soothe our nerves by satisfying our curiosity,” she said in her half-persuasive, half-commanding way, as she seated herself on Lady Treherne’s sacred sofa.
“There’s not much to tell, except that this place used to be an abbey, in fact as well as in name. An ancestor founded it, and for years the monks led a jolly life here, as one may see, for the cellar is twice as large as the chapel, and much better preserved. But another ancestor, a gay and gallant baron, took a fancy to the site for his castle, and, in spite of prayers, anathemas, and excommunication, he turned the poor fellows out, pulled down the abbey, and built this fine old place. Abbot Boniface, as he left his abbey, uttered a heavy curse on all who should live here, and vowed to haunt us till the last Treherne vanished from the face of the earth. With this amiable threat the old party left Baron Roland to his doom, and died as soon as he could in order to begin his cheerful mission.”
“Did he haunt the place?” asked Blanche eagerly.
“Yes, most faithfully from that time to this. Some say many of the monks still glide about the older parts of the abbey, for Roland spared the chapel and the north gallery which joined it to the modern building. Poor fellows, they are welcome, and once a year they shall have a chance to warm their ghostly selves by the great fires always kindled at Christmas in the gallery.”
“Mrs. Benson once told me that when the ghost walked, it was a sure sign of a coming death in the family. Is that true?” asked Rose, whose curiosity was excited by the expression of Octavia’s face, and a certain uneasiness in Sir Jasper’s manner in spite of his merry mood.
“There is a stupid superstition of that sort in the family, but no one except the servants believes it, of course. In times of illness some silly maid or croaking old woman can easily fancy they see a phantom, and, if death comes, they are sure of the ghostly warning. Benson saw it before my father died, and old Roger, the night my uncle was seized with apoplexy. Patty will never be made to believe that this warning does not forebode the death of Maurice or myself, for the gallant spirit leaves the ladies of our house to depart in peace. How does it strike you, Cousin?”
Turning as he spoke, Sir Jasper glanced at Treherne, who had entered while he spoke.
“I am quite skeptical and indifferent to the whole affair, but I agree with Octavia that it is best to say nothing to my aunt if she is ignorant of the matter. Her rooms are a long way off, and perhaps she did not hear the confusion.”
“You seem to hear everything; you were not with us when I said that.” And Octavia looked up with an air of surprise.
Smiling significantly, Treherne answered, “I hear, see, and understand many things that escape others. Jasper, allow me to advise you to smooth the hair which your sleep has disarranged. Mrs. Snowdon, permit me. This rich velvet catches the least speck.” And with his handkerchief he delicately brushed away several streaks of white dust which clung to the lady’s skirt.
Sir Jasper turned hastily on his heel and went to remake his toilet; Mrs. Snowdon bit her lip, but thanked Treherne sweetly and begged him to fasten her glove. As he did so, she said softly, “Be more careful next time. Octavia has keen eyes, and the major may prove inconvenient.”
“I have no fear that you will,” he whispered back, with a malicious glance.
Here the entrance of my lady put an end to the ghostly episode, for it was evident that she knew nothing of it. Octavia slipped away to question John, and learn that no sign of a phantom was to be seen. Treherne devoted himself to Mrs. Snowdon, and the major entertained my lady, while Sir Jasper and the girls chatted apart.
It was Christmas Eve, and a dance in the great gallery was the yearly festival at the abbey. All had been eager for it, but the maid’s story seemed to have lessened their enthusiasm, though no one would own it. This annoyed Sir Jasper, and he exerted himself to clear the atmosphere by affecting gaiety he did not feel. The moment the gentlemen came in after dinner he whispered to his mother, who rose, asked the general for his arm, and led the way to the north gallery, whence the sound of music now proceeded. The rest followed in a merry procession, even Treherne, for two footmen carried him up the great stairway, chair and all.
Nothing could look less ghostly now than the haunted gallery. Fires roared up a wide chimney at either end, long rows of figures clad in armor stood on each side, one mailed hand grasping a lance, the other bearing a lighted candle, a device of Sir Jasper’s. Narrow windows pierced in the thick walls let in gleams of wintry moonlight; ivy, holly, and evergreen glistened in the ruddy glow of mingled firelight and candle shine. From the arched stone roof hung tattered banners, and in the midst depended a great bunch of mistletoe. Red-cushioned seats stood in recessed window nooks, and from behind a high-covered screen of oak sounded the blithe air of Sir Roger de Coverley.
With the utmost gravity and stateliness my lady and the general led off the dance, for, according to the good old fashion, the men and maids in their best array joined the gentlefolk and danced with their betters in a high state of pride and bashfulness. Sir Jasper twirled the old housekeeper till her head spun around and around and her decorous skirts rustled stormily; Mrs. Snowdon captivated the gray-haired butler by her condescension; and John was made a proud man by the hand of his young mistress. The major came out strong among the pretty maids, and Rose danced the footmen out of breath long before the music paused.
The merriment increased from that moment, and when the general surprised my lady by gallantly saluting her as she unconsciously stood under the mistletoe, the applause was immense. Everyone followed the old gentleman’s example as fast as opportunities occurred, and the young ladies soon had as fine a color as the housemaids. More dancing, games, songs, and all manner of festival devices filled the evening, yet under cover of the gaiety more than one little scene was enacted that night, and in an hour of seeming frivolity the current of several lives was changed.
By a skillful maneuver Annon led Octavia to an isolated recess, as if to rest after a brisk game, and, taking advantage of the auspicious hour, pleaded his suit. She heard him patiently and, when he paused, said slowly, yet decidedly, and with no sign of maiden hesitation, “Thanks for the honor you do me, but I cannot accept it, for I do not love you. I think I never can.”
“Have you tried?” he asked eagerly.
“Yes, indeed I have. I like you as a friend, but no more. I know Mamma desires it, that Jasper hopes for it, and I try to please them, but love will not be forced, so what can I do?” And she smiled in spite of herself at her own blunt simplicity.
“No, but it can be cherished, strengthened, and in time won, with patience and devotion. Let me try, Octavia; it is but fair, unless you have already learned from another the lesson I hope to teach. Is it so?”
“No, I think not. I do not understand myself as yet, I am so young, and this so sudden. Give me time, Frank.”
She blushed and fluttered now, looked half angry, half beseeching, and altogether lovely.
“How much time shall I give? It cannot take long to read a heart like yours, dear.” And fancying her emotion a propitious omen, he assumed the lover in good earnest.
“Give me time till the New Year. I will answer then, and, meantime, leave me free to study both myself and you. We have known each other long, I own, but, still, this changes everything, and makes you seem another person. Be patient, Frank, and I will try to make my duty a pleasure.”
“I will. God bless you for the kind hope, Octavia. It has been mine for years, and if I lose it, it will go hardly with me.”
Later in the evening General Snowdon stood examining the antique screen. In many places carved oak was pierced quite through, so that voices were audible from behind it. The musicians had gone down to supper, the young folk were quietly busy at the other end of the hall, and as the old gentleman admired the quaint carving, the sound of his own name caught his ear. The housekeeper and butler still remained, though the other servants had gone, and sitting cosily behind the screen chatted in low tones believing themselves secure.
“It was Mrs. Snowdon, Adam, as I’m a living woman, though I wouldn’t say it to anyone but you. She and Sir Jasper were here wrapped in cloaks, and up to mischief, I’ll be bound. She is a beauty, but I don’t envy her, and there’ll be trouble in the house if she stays long.”
“But how do you know, Mrs. Benson, she was here? Where’s your proof, mum?” asked the pompous butler.
“Look at this, and then look at the outlandish trimming of the lady’s dress. You men are so dull about such matters you’d never observe these little points. Well, I was here first after Patty, and my light shone on this jet ornament lying near where she saw the spirit. No one has any such tasty trifles but Mrs. Snowdon, and these are all over her gown. If that ain’t proof, what is?”
“Well, admitting it, I then say what on earth should she and Master be up here for, at such a time?” asked the slow-witted butler.
“Adam, we are old servants of the family, and to you I’ll say what tortures shouldn’t draw from to another. Master has been wild, as you know, and it’s my belief that he loved this lady abroad. There was a talk of some mystery, or misdeed, or misfortune, more than a year ago, and she was in it. I’m loath to say it, but I think Master loves her still, and she him. The general is an old man, she is but young, and so spirited and winsome she can’t in reason care for him as for a fine, gallant gentleman like Sir Jasper. There’s trouble brewing, Adam, mark my words. There’s trouble brewing for the Trehernes.”
So low had the voices fallen that the listener could not have caught the words had not his ear been strained to the utmost. He did hear all, and his wasted face flashed with the wrath of a young man, then grew pale and stern as he turned to watch his wife. She stood apart from the others talking to Sir Jasper, who looked unusually handsome and debonair as he fanned her with a devoted air.
Perhaps it is true, thought the old man bitterly. They are well matched, were lovers once, no doubt, and long to be so again. Poor Edith, I was very blind. And with his gray head bowed upon his breast the general stole away, carrying an arrow in his brave old heart.
* * * * *
“Blanche, come here and rest, you will be ill tomorrow; and I promised Mamma to take care of you.” With which elder-sisterly command Rose led the girl to an immense old chair, which held them both. “Now listen to me and follow my advice, for I am wise in my generation, though not yet gray. They are all busy, so leave them alone and let me show you what is to be done.”
Rose spoke softly, but with great resolution, and nodded her pretty head so energetically that the holly berries came rolling over her white shoulders.
“We are not as rich as we might be, and must establish ourselves as soon and as well as possible. I intend to be Lady Treherne. You can be the Honorable Mrs. Annon, if you give your mind to it.”
“My dear child, are you mad?” whispered Blanche.
“Far from it, but you will be if you waste your time on Maurice. He is poor, and a cripple, though very charming, I admit. He loves Tavie, and she will marry him, I am sure. She can’t endure Frank, but tries to because my lady commands it. Nothing will come of it, so try your fascinations and comfort the poor man; sympathy now will foster love hereafter.”
“Don’t talk so here, Rose, someone will hear us,” began her sister, but the other broke in briskly.
“No fear, a crowd is the best place for secrets. Now remember what I say, and make your game while the ball is rolling. Other people are careful not to put their plans into words, but I’m no hypocrite, and say plainly what I mean. Bear my sage counsel in mind and act wisely. Now come and begin.”
Treherne was sitting alone by one of the great fires, regarding the gay scene with serious air. For him there was neither dancing nor games; he could only roam about catching glimpses of forbidden pleasures, impossible delights, and youthful hopes forever lost to him. Sad but not morose was his face, and to Octavia it was a mute reproach which she could not long resist. Coming up as if to warm herself, she spoke to him in her usually frank and friendly way, and felt her heart beat fast when she saw how swift a change her cordial manner wrought in him.
“How pretty your holly is! Do you remember how we used to go and gather it for festivals like this, when we were happy children?” he asked, looking up at her with eyes full of tender admiration.
“Yes, I remember. Everyone wears it tonight as a badge, but you have none. Let me get you a bit, I like to have you one of us in all things.”
She leaned forward to break a green sprig from the branch over the chimneypiece; the strong draft drew in her fleecy skirt, and in an instant she was enveloped in flames.
“Maurice, save me, help me!” cried a voice of fear and agony, and before anyone could reach her, before he himself knew how the deed was done, Treherne had thrown himself from his chair, wrapped the tiger skin tightly about her, and knelt there clasping her in his arms heedless of fire, pain, or the incoherent expressions of love that broke from his lips.
Great was the confusion and alarm which reigned for many minutes, but when the panic subsided two miracles appeared. Octavia was entirely uninjured, and Treherne was standing on his feet, a thing which for months he had not done without crutches. In the excitement of the moment, no one observed the wonder; all were crowding about the girl, who, pale and breathless but now self-possessed, was the first to exclaim, pointing to her cousin, who had drawn himself up, with the help of his chair, and leaned there smiling, with a face full of intense delight.
“Look at Maurice! Oh, Jasper, help him or he’ll fall!”
Sir Jasper sprung to his side and put a strong arm about him, while a chorus of wonder, sympathy, and congratulations rose about them.
“Why, lad, what does it mean? Have you been deceiving us all this time?” cried Jasper, as Treherne leaned on him, looking exhausted but truly happy.
“It means that I am not to be a cripple all my life; that they did not deceive me when they said a sudden shock might electrify me with a more potent magnetism than any they could apply. It has, and if I am cured I owe it all to you, Octavia.”
He stretched his hands to her with a gesture of such passionate gratitude that the girl covered her face to hide its traitorous tenderness, and my lady went to him, saying brokenly, as she embraced him with maternal warmth, “God bless you for this act, Maurice, and reward you with a perfect cure. To you I owe the lives of both my children; how can I thank you as I ought?”
“I dare not tell you yet,” he whispered eagerly, then added, “I am growing faint, Aunt. Get me away before I make a scene.”
This hint recalled my lady to her usual state of dignified self-possession. Bidding Jasper and the major help Treherne to his room without delay, she begged Rose to comfort her sister, who was sobbing hysterically, and as they all obeyed her, she led her daughter away to her own apartment, for the festivities of the evening were at an end.
At the same time Mrs. Snowdon and Annon bade my lady good-night, as if they also were about to retire, but as they reached the door of the gallery Mrs. Snowdon paused and beckoned Annon back. They were alone now, and, standing before the fire which had so nearly made that Christmas Eve a tragical one, she turned to him with a face full of interest and sympathy as she said, nodding toward the blackened shreds of Octavia’s dress, and the scorched tiger skin which still lay at their feet, “That was both a fortunate and an unfortunate little affair, but I fear Maurice’s gain will be your loss. Pardon my frankness for Octavia’s sake; she is a fine creature, and I long to see her given to one worthy of her. I am a woman to read faces quickly; I know that your suit does not prosper as you would have it, and I desire to help you. May I?”
“Indeed you may, and command any service of me in return. But to what do I owe this unexpected friendliness?” cried Annon, both grateful and surprised.
“To my regard for the young lady, my wish to save her from an unworthy man.”
“Do you mean Treherne?” asked Annon, more and more amazed.
“I do. Octavia must not marry a gambler!”
“My dear lady, you labor under some mistake; Treherne is by no means a gambler. I owe him no goodwill, but I cannot hear him slandered.”
“You are generous, but I am not mistaken. Can you, on your honor, assure me that Maurice never played?”
Mrs. Snowdon’s keen eyes were on him, and he looked embarrassed for a moment, but answered with some hesitation, “Why, no, I cannot say that, but I can assure you that he is not an habitual gambler. All young men of his rank play more or less, especially abroad. It is merely an amusement with most, and among men is not considered dishonorable or dangerous. Ladies think differently, I believe, at least in England.”
At the word “abroad,” Mrs. Snowdon’s face brightened, and she suddenly dropped her eyes, as if afraid of betraying some secret purpose.
“Indeed we do, and well we may, many of us having suffered from this pernicious habit. I have had special cause to dread and condemn it, and the fear that Octavia should in time suffer what I have suffered as a girl urges me to interfere where otherwise I should be dumb. Mr. Annon, there was a rumor that Maurice was forced to quit Paris, owing to some dishonorable practices at the gaming table. Is this true?”
“Nay, don’t ask me; upon my soul I cannot tell you. I only know that something was amiss, but what I never learned. Various tales were whispered at the clubs, and Sir Jasper indignantly denied them all. The bravery with which Maurice saved his cousin, and the sad affliction which fell upon him, silenced the gossip, and it was soon forgotten.”
Mrs. Snowdon remained silent for a moment, with brows knit in deep thought, while Annon uneasily watched her. Suddenly she glanced over her shoulder, drew nearer, and whispered cautiously, “Did the rumors of which you speak charge him with — ” and the last word was breathed into Annon’s ear almost inaudibily.
He started, as if some new light broke on him, and stared at the speaker with a troubled face for an instant, saying hastily, “No, but now you remind me that when an affair of that sort was discussed the other day Treherne looked very odd, and rolled himself away, as if it didn’t interest him. I can’t believe it, and yet it may be something of the kind. That would account for old Sir Jasper’s whim, and Treherne’s steady denial of any knowledge of the cause. How in heaven’s name did you learn this?”
“My woman’s wit suggested it, and my woman’s will shall confirm or destroy the suspicion. My lady and Octavia evidently know nothing, but they shall if there is any danger of the girl’s being won by him.”
“You would not tell her!” exclaimed Annon.
“I will, unless you do it” was the firm answer.
“Never! To betray a friend, even to gain the woman I love, is a thing I cannot do; my honor forbids it.”
Mrs. Snowdon smiled scornfully.
“Men’s code of honor is a strong one, and we poor women suffer from it. Leave this to me; do your best, and if all other means fail, you may be glad to try my device to prevent Maurice from marrying his cousin. Gratitude and pity are strong allies, and if he recovers, his strong will will move heaven and earth to gain her. Good night.” And leaving her last words to rankle in Annon’s mind, Mrs. Snowdon departed to endure sleepless hours full of tormenting memories, newborn hopes, and alternations of determination and despair.
Treherne’s prospect of recovery filled the whole house with delight, for his patient courage and unfailing cheerfulness had endeared him to all. It was no transient amendment, for day by day he steadily gained strength and power, passing rapidly from chair to crutches, from crutches to a cane and a friend’s arm, which was always ready for him. Pain returned with returning vitality, but he bore it with a fortitude that touched all who witnessed it. At times motion was torture, yet motion was necessary lest the torpidity should return, and Treherne took his daily exercise with unfailing perseverance, saying with a smile, though great drops stood upon his forehead, “I have something dearer even than health to win. Hold me up, Jasper, and let me stagger on, in spite of everything, till my twelve turns are made.”
He remembered Lady Treherne’s words, “If you were well, I’d gladly give my girl to you.” This inspired him with strength, endurance, and a happiness which could not be concealed. It overflowed in looks, words, and acts; it infected everyone, and made these holidays the blithest the old abbey had seen for many a day.
Annon devoted himself to Octavia, and in spite of her command to be left in peace till the New Year, she was very kind — so kind that hope flamed up in his heart, though he saw that something like compassion often shone on him from her frank eyes, and her compliance had no touch of the tender docility which lovers long to see. She still avoided Treherne, but so skillfully that few observed the change but Annon and himself. In public Sir Jasper appeared to worship at the sprightly Rose’s shrine, and she fancied her game was prospering well.
But had any one peeped behind the scenes it would have been discovered that during the half hour before dinner, when everyone was in their dressing rooms and the general taking his nap, a pair of ghostly black figures flitted about the haunted gallery, where no servant ventured without orders. The major fancied himself the only one who had made this discovery, for Mrs. Snowdon affected Treherne’s society in public, and was assiduous in serving and amusing the “dear convalescent,” as she called him. But the general did not sleep; he too watched and waited, longing yet dreading to speak, and hoping that this was but a harmless freak of Edith’s, for her caprices were many, and till now he had indulged them freely. This hesitation disgusted the major, who, being a bachelor, knew little of women’s ways, and less of their powers of persuasion. The day before New Year he took a sudden resolution, and demanded a private interview with the general.
“I have come on an unpleasant errand, sir,” he abruptly began, as the old man received him with an expression which rather daunted the major. “My friendship for Lady Treherne, and my guardianship of her children, makes me jealous of the honor of the family. I fear it is in danger, sir; pardon me for saying it, but your wife is the cause.”
“May I trouble you to explain, Major Royston” was all the general’s reply, as his old face grew stern and haughty.
“I will, sir, briefly. I happen to know from Jasper that there were love passages between Miss Dubarry and himself a year or more ago in Paris. A whim parted them, and she married. So far no reproach rests upon either, but since she came here it has been evident to others as well as myself that Jasper’s affection has revived, and that Mrs. Snowdon does not reject and reprove it as she should. They often meet, and from Jasper’s manner I am convinced that mischief is afloat. He is ardent, headstrong, and utterly regardless of the world’s opinion in some cases. I have watched them, and what I tell you is true.”
“I will. They meet in the north gallery, wrapped in dark cloaks, and play ghost if anyone comes. I concealed myself behind the screen last evening at dusk, and satisfied myself that my suspicions were correct. I heard little of their conversation, but that little was enough.”
“Repeat it, if you please.”
“Sir Jasper seemed pleading for some promise which she reluctantly gave, saying, ‘While you live I will be true to my word with everyone but him. He will suspect, and it will be useless to keep it from him.’
“‘He will shoot me for this if he knows I am the traitor,’ expostulated Jasper.
“‘He shall not know that; I can hoodwink him easily, and serve my purpose also.’
“‘You are mysterious, but I leave all to you and wait for my reward. When shall I have it, Edith?’ She laughed, and answered so low I could not hear, for they left the gallery as they spoke. Forgive me, General, for the pain I inflict. You are the only person to whom I have spoken, and you are the only person who can properly and promptly prevent this affair from bringing open shame and scandal on an honorable house. To you I leave it, and will do my part with this infatuated young man if you will withdraw the temptation which will ruin him.”
“I will. Thank you, Major. Trust to me, and by tomorrow I will prove that I can act as becomes me.”
The grief and misery in the general’s face touched the major; he silently wrung his hand and went away, thanking heaven more fervently than ever that no cursed coquette of a woman had it in her power to break his heart.
While this scene was going on above, another was taking place in the library. Treherne sat there alone, thinking happy thoughts evidently, for his eyes shone and his lips smiled as he mused, while watching the splendors of a winter sunset. A soft rustle and the faint scent of violets warned him of Mrs. Snowdon’s approach, and a sudden foreboding told him that danger was near. The instant he saw her face his fear was confirmed, for exultation, resolve, and love met and mingled in the expression it wore. Leaning in the window recess, where the red light shone full on her lovely face and queenly figure, she said, softly yet with a ruthless accent below the softness, “Dreaming dreams, Maurice, which will never come to pass, unless I will it. I know your secret, and I shall use it to prevent the fulfillment of the foolish hope you cherish.”
“Who told you?” he demanded, with an almost fierce flash of the eye and an angry flush.
“I discovered it, as I warned you I should. My memory is good, I recall the gossip of long ago, I observe the faces, words, and acts of those whom I suspect, and unconscious hints from them give me the truth.”
“I doubt it,” and Treherne smiled securely.
She stooped and whispered one short sentence into his ear. Whatever it was it caused him to start up with a pale, panic-stricken face, and eye her as if she had pronounced his doom.
“Do you doubt it now?” she asked coldly.
“He told you! Even your skill and craft could not discover it alone,” he muttered.
“Nay, I told you nothing was impossible to a determined woman. I needed no help, for I knew more than you think.”
He sank down again in a despairing attitude and hid his face, saying mournfully, “I might have known you would hunt me down and dash my hopes when they were surest. How will you use this unhappy secret?”
“I will tell Octavia, and make her duty less hard. It will be kind to both of you, for even with her this memory would mar your happiness; and it saves her from the shame and grief of discovering, when too late, that she has given herself to a—”
“Stop!” he cried, in a tone that made her start and pale, as he rose out of his chair white with a stern indignation which awed her for a moment. “You shall not utter that word — you know but half the truth, and if you wrong me or trouble the girl I will turn traitor also, and tell the general the game you are playing with my cousin. You feign to love me as you feigned before, but his title is the bait now as then, and you fancy that by threatening to mar my hopes you will secure my silence, and gain your end.”
“Wrong, quite wrong. Jasper is nothing to me; I use him as a tool, not you. If I threaten, it is to keep you from Octavia, who cannot forgive the past and love you for yourself, as I have done all these miserable months. You say I know but half the truth. Tell me the whole and I will spare you.”
If ever a man was tempted to betray a trust it was Treherne then. A word, and Octavia might be his; silence, and she might be lost; for this woman was in earnest, and possessed the power to ruin his good name forever. The truth leaped to his lips and would have passed them, had not his eye fallen on the portrait of Jasper’s father. This man had loved and sheltered the orphan all his life, had made of him a son, and, dying, urged him to guard and serve and save the rebellious youth he left, when most needing a father’s care.
“I promised, and I will keep my promise at all costs,” sighed Treherne, and with a gesture full of pathetic patience he waved the fair tempter from him, saying steadily, “I will never tell you, though you rob me of that which is dearer than my life. Go and work your will, but remember that when you might have won the deepest gratitude of the man you profess to love, you chose instead to earn his hatred and contempt.”
Waiting for no word of hers, he took refuge in his room, and Edith Snowdon sank down upon the couch, struggling with contending emotions of love and jealousy, remorse and despair. How long she sat there she could not tell; an approaching step recalled her to herself, and looking up she saw Octavia. As the girl approached down the long vista of the drawing rooms, her youth and beauty, innocence and candor touched that fairer and more gifted woman with an envy she had never known before. Something in the girl’s face struck her instantly: a look of peace and purity, a sweet serenity more winning than loveliness, more impressive than dignity or grace. With a smile on her lips, yet a half-sad, half-tender light in her eyes, and a cluster of pale winter roses in her hand, she came on till she stood before her rival and, offering the flowers, said, in words as simple as sincere, “Dear Mrs. Snowdon, I cannot let the last sun of the old year set on any misdeeds of mine for which I may atone. I have disliked, distrusted, and misjudged you, and now I come to you in all humility to say forgive me.”
With the girlish abandon of her impulsive nature Octavia knelt down before the woman who was plotting to destroy her happiness, laid the roses like a little peace offering on her lap, and with eloquently pleading eyes waited for pardon. For a moment Mrs. Snowdon watched her, fancying it a well-acted ruse to disarm a dangerous rival; but in that sweet face there was no art; one glance showed her that. The words smote her to the heart and won her in spite of pride or passion, as she suddenly took the girl into her arms, weeping repentant tears. Neither spoke, but in the silence each felt the barrier which had stood between them vanishing, and each learned to know the other better in that moment than in a year of common life. Octavia rejoiced that the instinct which had prompted her to make this appeal had not misled her, but assured her that behind the veil of coldness, pride, and levity which this woman wore there was a heart aching for sympathy and help and love. Mrs. Snowdon felt her worser self slip from her, leaving all that was true and noble to make her worthy of the test applied. Art she could meet with equal art, but nature conquered her. For spite of her misspent life and faulty character, the germ of virtue, which lives in the worst, was there, only waiting for the fostering sun and dew of love to strengthen it, even though the harvest be a late one.
“Forgive you!” she cried, brokenly. “It is I who should ask forgiveness of you — I who should atone, confess, and repent. Pardon me, pity me, love me, for I am more wretched than you know.”
“Dear, I do with heart and soul. Believe it, and let me be your friend” was the soft answer.
“God knows I need one!” sighed the poor woman, still holding fast the only creature who had wholly won her. “Child, I am not good, but not so bad that I dare not look in your innocent face and call you friend. I never had one of my own sex. I never knew my mother; and no one ever saw in me the possibility of goodness, truth, and justice but you. Trust and love and help me, Octavia, and I will reward you with a better life, if I can do no more.”
“I will, and the new year shall be happier than the old.”
“God bless you for that prophecy; may I be worthy of it.”
Then as a bell warned them away, the rivals kissed each other tenderly, and parted friends. As Mrs. Snowdon entered her room, she saw her husband sitting with his gray head in his hands, and heard him murmur despairingly to himself, “My life makes her miserable. But for the sin of it I’d die to free her.”
“No, live for me, and teach me to be happy in your love.” The clear voice startled him, but not so much as the beautiful changed face of the wife who laid the gray head on her bosom, saying tenderly, “My kind and patient husband, you have been deceived. From me you shall know all the truth, and when you have forgiven my faulty past, you shall see how happy I will try to make your future.”
A GHOSTLY REVEL
“Bless me, how dull we are tonight!” exclaimed Rose, as the younger portion of the party wandered listlessly about the drawing rooms that evening, while my lady and the major played an absorbing game of piquet, and the general dozed peacefully at last.
“It is because Maurice is not here; he always keeps us going, for he is a fellow of infinite resources,” replied Sir Jasper, suppressing a yawn.
“Have him out then,” said Annon.
“He won’t come. The poor lad is blue tonight, in spite of his improvement. Something is amiss, and there is no getting a word from him.”
“Sad memories afflict him, perhaps,” sighed Blanche.
“Don’t be absurd, dear, sad memories are all nonsense; melancholy is always indigestion, and nothing is so sure a cure as fun,” said Rose briskly. “I’m going to send in a polite invitation begging him to come and amuse us. He’ll accept, I haven’t a doubt.”
The message was sent, but to Rose’s chagrin a polite refusal was returned.
“He shall come. Sir Jasper, do you and Mr. Annon go as a deputation from us, and return without him at your peril” was her command.
They went, and while waiting their reappearance the sisters spoke of what all had observed.
“How lovely Mrs. Snowdon looks tonight. I always thought she owed half her charms to her skill in dress, but she never looked so beautiful as in that plain black silk, with those roses in her hair,” said Rose.
“What has she done to herself?” replied Blanche. “I see a change, but can’t account for it. She and Tavie have made some beautifying discovery, for both look altogether uplifted and angelic all of a sudden.”
“Here come the gentlemen, and, as I’m a Talbot, they haven’t got him!” cried Rose as the deputation appeared, looking very crestfallen. “Don’t come near me,” she added, irefully, “you are disloyal cowards, and I doom you to exile till I want you. I am infinite in resources as well as this recreant man, and come he shall. Mrs. Snowdon, would you mind asking Mr. Treherne to suggest something to wile away the rest of this evening? We are in despair, and can think of nothing, and you are all-powerful with him.”
“I must decline, since he refuses you” was the decided answer, as Mrs. Snowdon moved away.
“Tavie, dear, do go; we must have him; he always obeys you, and you would be such a public benefactor, you know.”
Without a word Octavia wrote a line and sent it by a servant. Several minutes passed, and the gentlemen began to lay wagers on the success of her trial. “He will not come for me, you may be sure,” said Octavia. As the words passed her lips he appeared.
A general laugh greeted him, but, taking no notice of the jests at his expense, he turned to Octavia, saying quietly, “What can I do for you, Cousin?”
His colorless face and weary eyes reproached her for disturbing him, but it was too late for regret, and she answered hastily, “We are in want of some new and amusing occupation to wile away the evening. Can you suggest something appropriate?”
“Why not sit round the hall fire and tell stories, while we wait to see the old year out, as we used to do long ago?” he asked, after a moment’s thought.
“I told you so! There it is, just what we want.” And Sir Jasper looked triumphant.
“It’s capital — let us begin at once. It is after ten now, so we shall not have long to wait,” cried Rose, and, taking Sir Jasper’s arm, she led the way to the hall.
A great fire always burned there, and in wintertime thick carpets and curtains covered the stone floor and draped the tall windows. Plants blossomed in the warm atmosphere, and chairs and lounges stood about invitingly. The party was soon seated, and Treherne was desired to begin.
“We must have ghost stories, and in order to be properly thrilling and effective, the lights must be put out,” said Rose, who sat next him, and spoke first, as usual.
This was soon done, and only a ruddy circle of firelight was left to oppose the rapt gloom that filled the hall, where shadows now seemed to lurk in every corner.
“Don’t be very dreadful, or I shall faint away,” pleaded Blanche, drawing nearer to Annon, for she had taken her sister’s advice, and laid close siege to that gentleman’s heart.
“I think your nerves will bear my little tale,” replied Treherne. “When I was in India, four years ago, I had a very dear friend in my regiment — a Scotchman; I’m half Scotch myself, you know, and clannish, of course. Gordon was sent up the country on a scouting expedition, and never returned. His men reported that he left them one evening to take a survey, and his horse came home bloody and riderless. We searched, but could not find a trace of him, and I was desperate to discover and avenge his murder. About a month after his disappearance, as I sat in my tent one fearfully hot day, suddenly the canvas door flap was raised and there stood Gordon. I saw him as plainly as I see you, Jasper, and should have sprung to meet him, but something held me back. He was deathly pale, dripping with water, and in his bonny blue eyes was a wild, woeful look that made my blood run cold. I stared dumbly, for it was awful to see my friend so changed and so unearthly. Stretching his arm to me he took my hand, saying solemnly, ‘Come!’ The touch was like ice; an ominous thrill ran through me; I started up to obey, and he was gone.”
“A horrid dream, of course. Is that all?” asked Rose.
With his eyes on the fire and his left hand half extended, Treherne went on as if he had not heard her.
“I thought it was a fancy, and soon recovered myself, for no one had seen or heard anything of Gordon, and my native servant lay just outside my tent. A strange sensation remained in the hand the phantom touched. It was cold, damp, and white. I found it vain to try to forget this apparition; it took strong hold of me; I told Yermid, my man, and he bade me consider it a sign that I was to seek my friend. That night I dreamed I was riding up the country in hot haste; what led me I know not, but I pressed on and on, longing to reach the end. A half-dried river crossed my path, and, riding down the steep bank to ford it, I saw Gordon’s body lying in the shallow water looking exactly as the vision looked. I woke in a strange mood, told the story to my commanding officer, and, as nothing was doing just then, easily got leave of absence for a week. Taking Yermid, I set out on my sad quest. I thought it folly, but I could not resist the impulse that drew me on. For seven days I searched, and the strangest part of the story is that all that time I went on exactly as in the dream, seeing what I saw then, and led by the touch of a cold hand on mine. On the seventh day I reached the river, and found my friend’s body.”
“How horrible! Is it really true?” cried Mrs. Snowdon.
“As true as I am a living man. Nor is that all: this left hand of mine never has been warm since that time. See and feel for yourselves.”
He opened both hands, and all satisfied themselves that the left was smaller, paler, and colder than the right.
“Pray someone tell another story to put this out of my mind; it makes me nervous,” said Blanche.
“I’ll tell one, and you may laugh to quiet your nerves. I want to have mine done with, so that I can enjoy the rest with a free mind.” With these words Rose began her tale in the good old fashion.
“Once upon a time, when we were paying a visit to my blessed grandmamma, I saw a ghost in this wise: The dear old lady was ill with a cold and kept her room, leaving us to mope, for it was very dull in the great lonely house. Blanche and I were both homesick, but didn’t like to leave till she was better, so we ransacked the library and solaced ourselves with all manner of queer books. One day I found Grandmamma very low and nervous, and evidently with something on her mind. She would say nothing, but the next day was worse, and I insisted on knowing the cause, for the trouble was evidently mental. Charging me to keep it from Blanche, who was, and is, a sad coward, she told me that a spirit had appeared to her two successive nights. ‘If it comes a third time, I shall prepare to die,’ said the foolish old lady.
“‘No, you won’t, for I’ll come and stay with you and lay your ghost,’ I said. With some difficulty I made her yield, and after Blanche was asleep I slipped away to Grandmamma, with a book and candle for a long watch, as the spirit didn’t appear till after midnight. She usually slept with her door unlocked, in case of fire or fright, and her maid was close by. That night I locked the door, telling her that spirits could come through the oak if they chose, and I preferred to have a fair trial. Well, I read and chatted and dozed till dawn and nothing appeared, so I laughed at the whole affair, and the old lady pretended to be convinced that it was all a fancy.
“Next night I slept in my own room, and in the morning was told that not only Grandmamma but Janet had seen the spirit. All in white, with streaming hair, a pale face, and a red streak at the throat. It came and parted the bed-curtains, looking in a moment, and then vanished. Janet had slept with Grandmamma and kept a lamp burning on the chimney, so both saw it.
“I was puzzled, but not frightened; I never am, and I insisted on trying again. The door was left unlocked, as on the previous night, and I lay with Grandmamma, a light burning as before. About two she clutched me as I was dropping off. I looked, and there, peeping in between the dark curtains, was a pale face with long hair all about it, and a red streak at the throat. It was very dim, the light being low, but I saw it, and after one breathless minute sprang up, caught my foot, fell down with a crash, and by the time I was around the bed, not a vestige of the thing appeared. I was angry, and vowed I’d succeed at all hazards, though I’ll confess I was just a bit daunted.
“Next time Janet and I sat up in easy chairs, with bright lights burning, and both wide awake with the strongest coffee we could make. As the hour drew near we got nervous, and when the white shape came gliding in Janet hid her face. I didn’t, and after one look was on the point of laughing, for the spirit was Blanche walking in her sleep. She wore a coral necklace in those days, and never took it off, and her long hair half hid her face, which had the unnatural, uncanny look somnambulists always wear. I had the sense to keep still and tell Janet what to do, so the poor child went back unwaked, and Grandmamma’s spirit never walked again for I took care of that.”
“Why did you haunt the old lady?” asked Annon, as the laughter ceased.
“I don’t know, unless it was that I wanted to ask leave to go home, and was afraid to do it awake, so tried when asleep. I shall not tell any story, as I was the heroine of this, but will give my turn to you, Mr. Annon,” said Blanche, with a soft glance, which was quite thrown away, for the gentleman’s eyes were fixed on Octavia, who sat on a low ottoman at Mrs. Snowdon’s feet in the full glow of the firelight.
“I’ve had very small experience in ghosts, and can only recall a little fright I once had when a boy at college. I’d been out to a party, got home tired, couldn’t find my matches, and retired in the dark. Toward morning I woke, and glancing up to see if the dim light was dawn or moonshine I was horrified to see a coffin standing at the bed’s foot. I rubbed my eyes to be sure I was awake, and looked with all my might. There it was, a long black coffin, and I saw the white plate in the dusk, for the moon was setting and my curtain was not drawn. ‘It’s some trick of the fellows,’ I thought; ‘I’ll not betray myself, but keep cool.’ Easy to say but hard to do, for it suddenly flashed into my mind that I might be in the wrong room. I glanced about, but there were the familiar objects as usual, as far as the indistinct light allowed me to see, and I made sure by feeling on the wall at the bed’s head for my watchcase. It was there, and mine beyond a doubt, being peculiar in shape and fabric. Had I been to a college wine party I could have accounted for the vision, but a quiet evening in a grave professor’s well-conducted family could produce no ill effects. ‘It’s an optical illusion, or a prank of my mates; I’ll sleep and forget it,’ I said, and for a time endeavored to do so, but curiosity overcame my resolve, and soon I peeped again. Judge of my horror when I saw the sharp white outline of a dead face, which seemed to be peeping up from the coffin. It gave me a terrible shock for I was but a lad and had been ill. I hid my face and quaked like a nervous girl, still thinking it some joke and too proud to betray fear lest I should be laughed at. How long I lay there I don’t know, but when I looked again the face was farther out and the whole figure seemed rising slowly. The moon was nearly down, I had no lamp, and to be left in the dark with that awesome thing was more than I could bear. Joke or earnest, I must end the panic, and bolting out of my room I roused my neighbor. He told me I was mad or drunk, but lit a lamp and returned with me, to find my horror only a heap of clothes thrown on the table in such a way that, as the moon’s pale light shot it, it struck upon my black student’s gown, with a white card lying on it, and produced the effect of a coffin and plate. The face was a crumpled handkerchief, and what seemed hair a brown muffler. As the moon sank, these outlines changed and, incredible as it may seem, grew like a face. My friend not having had the fright enjoyed the joke, and ‘Coffins’ was my sobriquet for a long while.”
“You get worse and worse. Sir Jasper, do vary the horrors by a touch of fun, or I shall run away,” said Blanche, glancing over her shoulder nervously.
“I’ll do my best, and tell a story my uncle used to relate of his young days. I forget the name of the place, but it was some little country town famous among anglers. My uncle often went to fish, and always regretted that a deserted house near the trout stream was not occupied, for the inn was inconveniently distant. Speaking of this one evening as he lounged in the landlady’s parlor, he asked why no one took it and let the rooms to strangers in the fishing season. ‘For fear of the ghostissess, your honor,’ replied the woman, and proceeded to tell, him that three distinct spirits haunted the house. In the garret was heard the hum of a wheel and the tap of high-heeled shoes, as the ghostly spinner went to and fro. In a chamber sounded the sharpening of a knife, followed by groans and the drip of blood. The cellar was made awful by a skeleton sitting on a half-buried box and chuckling fiendishly. It seems a miser lived there once, and was believed to have starved his daughter in the garret, keeping her at work till she died. The second spirit was that of the girl’s rejected lover, who cut his throat in the chamber, and the third of the miser who was found dead on the money chest he was too feeble to conceal. My uncle laughed at all this, and offered to lay the ghosts if anyone would take the house.
“This offer got abroad, and a crusty old fellow accepted it, hoping to turn a penny. He had a pretty girl, whose love had been thwarted by the old man, and whose lover was going to sea in despair. My uncle knew this and pitied the young people. He had made acquaintance with a wandering artist, and the two agreed to conquer the prejudices against the house by taking rooms there. They did so, and after satisfying themselves regarding the noises, consulted a wise old woman as to the best means of laying the ghosts. She told them if any young girl would pass a night in each haunted room, praying piously the while, that all would be well. Peggy was asked if she would do it, and being a stouthearted lass she consented, for a round sum, to try it. The first night was in the garret, and Peggy, in spite of the prophecies of the village gossips, came out alive, though listeners at the door heard the weird humming and tapping all night long. The next night all went well, and from that time no more sharpening, groaning, or dripping was heard. The third time she bade her friends good-bye and, wrapped in her red cloak, with a lamp and prayer book, went down into the cellar. Alas for pretty Peggy! When day came she was gone, and with her the miser’s empty box, though his bones remained to prove how well she had done her work.
“The town was in an uproar, and the old man furious. Some said the devil had flown away with her, others that the bones were hers, and all agreed that henceforth another ghost would haunt the house. My uncle and the artist did their best to comfort the father, who sorely reproached himself for thwarting the girl’s love, and declared that if Jack would find her he should have her. But Jack had sailed, and the old man ‘was left lamenting.’ The house was freed from its unearthly visitors, however, for no ghost appeared; and when my uncle left, old Martin found money and letter informing him that Peggy had spent her first two nights preparing for flight, and on the third had gone away to marry and sail with Jack. The noises had been produced by the artist, who was a ventriloquist, the skeleton had been smuggled from the surgeons, and the whole thing was a conspiracy to help Peggy and accommodate the fishermen.”
“It is evident that roguery is hereditary,” laughed Rose as the narrator paused.
“I strongly suspect that Sir Jasper the second was the true hero of that story,” added Mrs. Snowdon.
“Think what you like, I’ve done my part, and leave the stage for you, madam.”
“I will come last. It is your turn, dear.” As Mrs. Snowdon softly uttered the last word, and Octavia leaned upon her knee with an affectionate glance, Treherne leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the two changed faces, and looked as if bewildered when both smiled at him, as they sat hand in hand while the girl told her story.
“Long ago a famous actress suddenly dropped dead at the close of a splendidly played tragedy. She was carried home, and preparations were made to bury her. The play had been gotten up with great care and expense, and a fine actor was the hero. The public demanded a repetition, and an inferior person was engaged to take the dead lady’s part. A day’s delay had been necessary, but when the night came the house was crowded. They waited both before and behind the curtain for the debut of the new actress, with much curiosity. She stood waiting for her cue, but as it was given, to the amazement of all, the great tragedienne glided upon the stage. Pale as marble, and with a strange fire in her eyes, strange pathos in her voice, strange power in her acting, she went through her part, and at the close vanished as mysteriously as she came. Great was the excitement that night, and intense the astonishment and horror next day when it was whispered abroad that the dead woman never had revived, but had lain in her coffin before the eyes of watchers all the evening, when hundreds fancied they were applauding her at the theater. The mystery never was cleared up, and Paris was divided by two opinions: one that some person marvelously like Madame Z. had personated her for the sake of a sensation; the other that the ghost of the dead actress, unable to free itself from the old duties so full of fascination to an ambitious and successful woman, had played for the last time the part which had made her famous.”
“Where did you find that, Tavie? It’s very French, and not bad if you invented it,” said Sir Jasper.
“I read it in an old book, where it was much better told. Now, Edith, there is just time for your tale.”
As the word “Edith” passed her lips, again Treherne started and eyed them both, and again they smiled, as Mrs. Snowdon caressed the smooth cheek leaning on her knee, and looking full at him began the last recital.
“You have been recounting the pranks of imaginary ghosts; let me show you the workings of some real spirits, evil and good, that haunt every heart and home, making its misery or joy. At Christmastime, in a country house, a party of friends met to keep the holidays, and very happily they might have done so had not one person marred the peace of several. Love, jealousy, deceit, and nobleness were the spirits that played their freaks with these people. The person of whom I speak was more haunted than the rest, and much tormented, being willful, proud, and jealous. Heaven help her, she had had no one to exorcise these ghosts for her, and they goaded her to do much harm. Among these friends there were more than one pair of lovers, and much tangling of plots and plans, for hearts are wayward and mysterious things, and cannot love as duty bids or prudence counsels. This woman held the key to all the secrets of the house, and, having a purpose to gain, she used her power selfishly, for a time. To satisfy a doubt, she feigned a fancy for a gentleman who once did her the honor of admiring her, and, to the great scandal of certain sage persons, permitted him to show his regard for her, knowing that it was but a transient amusement on his part as well as upon hers. In the hands of this woman lay a secret which could make or mar the happiness of the best and dearest of the party. The evil spirits which haunted her urged her to mar their peace and gratify a sinful hope. On the other side, honor, justice, and generosity prompted her to make them happy, and while she wavered there came to her a sweet enchantress who, with a word, banished the tormenting ghosts forever, and gave the haunted woman a talisman to keep her free henceforth.”
There the earnest voice faltered, and with a sudden impulse Mrs. Snowdon bent her head and kissed the fair forehead which had bent lower and lower as she went on. Each listener understood the truth, lightly veiled in that hasty fable, and each found in it a different meaning. Sir Jasper frowned and bit his lips, Annon glanced anxiously from face to face, Octavia hid hers, and Treherne’s flashed with sudden intelligence, while Rose laughed low to herself, enjoying the scene. Blanche, who was getting sleepy, said, with a stifled gape, “That is a very nice, moral little story, but I wish there had been some real ghosts in it.”
“There was. Will you come and see them?”
As she put the question, Mrs. Snowdon rose abruptly, wishing to end the séance, and beckoning them to follow glided up the great stairway. All obeyed, wondering what whim possessed her, and quite ready for any jest in store for them.
She led them to the north gallery and, pausing at the door, said merrily, “The ghost — or ghosts rather, for there were two — which frightened Patty were Sir Jasper and myself, meeting to discuss certain important matters which concerned Mr. Treherne. If you want to see spirits we will play phantom for you, and convince you of our power.”
“Good, let us go and have a ghostly dance, as a proper finale of our revel,” answered Rose as they flocked into the long hall.
At that moment the great clock struck twelve, and all paused to bid the old year adieu. Sir Jasper was the first to speak, for, angry with Mrs. Snowdon, yet thankful to her for making a jest to others of what had been earnest to him, he desired to hide his chagrin under a gay manner; and taking Rose around the waist was about to waltz away as she proposed, saying cheerily, “‘Come one and all, and dance the new year in,’“ when a cry from Octavia arrested him, and turning he saw her stand, pale and trembling, pointing to the far end of the hall.
Eight narrow Gothic windows pierced either wall of the north gallery. A full moon sent her silvery light strongly in upon the eastern side, making broad bars of brightness across the floor. No fires burned there now, and wherever the moonlight did not fall deep shadows lay. As Octavia cried out, all looked, and all distinctly saw a tall, dark figure moving noiselessly across the second bar of light far down the hall.
“Is it some jest of yours?” asked Sir Jasper of Mrs. Snowdon, as the form vanished in the shadow.
“No, upon my honor, I know nothing of it! I only meant to relieve Octavia’s superstitious fears by showing her our pranks” was the whispered reply as Mrs. Snowdon’s cheek paled, and she drew nearer to Jasper.
“Who is there?” called Treherne in a commanding tone.
No answer, but a faint, cold breath of air seemed to sigh along the arched roof and die away as the dark figure crossed the third streak of moonlight. A strange awe fell upon them all, and no one spoke, but stood watching for the appearance of the shape. Nearer and nearer it came, with soundless steps, and as it reached the sixth window its outlines were distinctly visible. A tall, wasted figure, all in black, with a rosary hanging from the girdle, and a dark beard half concealing the face.
“The Abbot’s ghost, and very well got up,” said Annon, trying to laugh but failing decidedly, for again the cold breath swept over them, causing a general shudder.
“Hush!” whispered Treherne, drawing Octavia to his side with a protecting gesture.
Once more the phantom appeared and disappeared, and as they waited for it to cross the last bar of light that lay between it and them, Mrs. Snowdon stepped forward to the edge of the shadow in which they stood, as if to confront the apparition alone. Out of the darkness it came, and in the full radiance of the light it paused. Mrs. Snowdon, being nearest, saw the face first, and uttering a faint cry dropped down upon the stone floor, covering up her eyes. Nothing human ever wore a look like that of the ghastly, hollow-eyed, pale-lipped countenance below the hood. All saw it and held their breath as it slowly raised a shadowy arm and pointed a shriveled finger at Sir Jasper.
“Speak, whatever you are, or I’ll quickly prove whether you are man or spirit!” cried Jasper fiercely, stepping forward as if to grasp the extended arm that seemed to menace him alone.
An icy gust swept through the hall, and the phantom slowly receded into the shadow. Jasper sprang after it, but nothing crossed the second stream of light, and nothing remained in the shade. Like one possessed by a sudden fancy he rushed down the gallery to find all fast and empty, and to return looking very strangely. Blanche had fainted away and Annon was bearing her out of the hall. Rose was clinging to Mrs. Snowdon, and Octavia leaned against her cousin, saying in a fervent whisper, “Thank God it did not point at you!”
“Am I then dearer than your brother?” he whispered back.
There was no audible reply, but one little hand involuntarily pressed his, though the other was outstretched toward Jasper, who came up white and startled but firm and quiet. Affecting to make light of it, he said, forcing a smile as he raised Mrs. Snowdon, “It is some stupid joke of the servants. Let us think no more of it. Come, Edith, this is not like your usual self.”
“It was nothing human, Jasper; you know it as well as I. Oh, why did I bring you here to meet the warning phantom that haunts your house!”
“Nay, if my time is near the spirit would have found me out wherever I might be. I have no faith in that absurd superstition — I laugh at and defy it. Come down and drink my health in wine from the Abbot’s own cellar.”
But no one had heart for further gaiety, and, finding Lady Treherne already alarmed by Annon, they were forced to tell her all, and find their own bewilderment deepened by her unalterable belief in the evil omen.
At her command the house was searched, the servants cross-questioned, and every effort made to discover the identity of the apparition. All in vain; the house was as usual, and not a man or maid but turned pale at the idea of entering the gallery at midnight. At my lady’s request, all promised to say no more upon the mystery, and separated at last to such sleep as they could enjoy.
Very grave were the faces gathered about the breakfast table next morning, and very anxious the glances cast on Sir Jasper as he came in, late as usual, looking uncommonly blithe and well. Nothing serious ever made a deep impression on his mercurial nature. Treherne had more the air of a doomed man, being very pale and worn, in spite of an occasional gleam of happiness as he looked at Octavia. He haunted Jasper like a shadow all the morning, much to that young gentleman’s annoyance, for both his mother and sister hung about him with faces of ill-dissembled anxiety. By afternoon his patience gave out, and he openly rebelled against the tender guard kept over him. Ringing for his horse he said decidedly, “I’m bored to death with the solemnity which pervades the house today, so I’m off for a brisk gallop, before I lose my temper and spirits altogether.”
“Come with me in the pony carriage, Jasper. I’ve not had a drive with you for a long while, and should enjoy it so much,” said my lady, detaining him.
“Mrs. Snowdon looks as if she needed air to revive her roses, and the pony carriage is just the thing for her, so I will cheerfully resign my seat to her,” he answered laughing, as he forced himself from his mother’s hand.
“Take the girls in the clarence. We all want a breath of air, and you are the best whip we know. Be gallant and say yes, dear.”
“No, thank you, Tavie, that won’t do. Rose and Blanche are both asleep, and you are dying to go and do likewise, after your vigils last night. As a man and a brother I beg you’ll do so, and let me ride as I like.”
“Suppose you ask Annon to join you—” began Treherne with well-assumed indifference; but Sir Jasper frowned and turned sharply on him, saying, half-petulantly, half-jocosely:
“Upon my life I should think I was a boy or a baby, by the manner in which you mount guard over me today. If you think I’m going to live in daily fear of some mishap, you are all much mistaken. Ghost or no ghost, I shall make merry while I can; a short life and a jolly one has always been my motto, you know, so fare you well till dinnertime.”
They watched him gallop down the avenue, and then went their different ways, still burdened with a nameless foreboding. Octavia strolled into the conservatory, thinking to refresh herself with the balmy silence which pervaded the place, but Annon soon joined her, full of a lover’s hopes and fears.
“Miss Treherne, I have ventured to come for my answer. Is my New Year to be a blissful or a sad one?” he asked eagerly.
“Forgive me if I give you an unwelcome reply, but I must be true, and so regretfully refuse the honor you do me,” she said sorrowfully.
“May I ask why?”
“Because I do not love you.”
“And you do love your cousin,” he cried angrily, pausing to watch her half-averted face.
She turned it fully toward him and answered, with her native sincerity, “Yes, I do, with all my heart, and now my mother will not thwart me, for Maurice has saved my life, and I am free to devote it all to him.”
“Happy man, I wish I had been a cripple!” sighed Annon. Then with a manful effort to be just and generous, he added heartily, “Say no more, he deserves you; I want no sacrifice to duty; I yield, and go away, praying heaven to bless you now and always.”
He kissed her hand and left her to seek my lady and make his adieus, for no persuasion could keep him. Leaving a note for Sir Jasper, he hurried away, to the great relief of Treherne and the deep regret of Blanche, who, however, lived in hopes of another trial later in the season.
“Here comes Jasper, Mamma, safe and well,” cried Octavia an hour or two later, as she joined her mother on the terrace, where my lady had been pacing restlessly to and fro nearly ever since her son rode away.
With a smile of intense relief she waved her handkerchief as he came clattering up the drive, and seeing her he answered with hat and hand. He usually dismounted at the great hall door, but a sudden whim made him ride along the wall that lay below the terrace, for he was a fine horseman, and Mrs. Snowdon was looking from her window. As he approached, the peacocks fled screaming, and one flew up just before the horse’s eyes as his master was in the act of dismounting. The spirited creature was startled, sprang partway up the low, broad steps of the terrace, and, being sharply checked, slipped, fell, and man and horse rolled down together.
Never did those who heard it forget the cry that left Lady Treherne’s lips as she saw the fall. It brought out both guests and servants, to find Octavia recklessly struggling with the frightened horse, and my lady down upon the stones with her son’s bleeding head in her arms.
They bore in the senseless, shattered body, and for hours tried everything that skill and sciences could devise to save the young man’s life. But every effort was in vain, and as the sun set Sir Jasper lay dying. Conscious at last, and able to speak, he looked about him with a troubled glance, and seemed struggling with some desire that overmastered pain and held death at bay.
“I want Maurice,” he feebly said, at length.
“Dear lad, I’m here,” answered his cousin’s voice from a seat in the shadow of the half-drawn curtains.
“Always near when I need you. Many a scrape have you helped me out of, but this is beyond your power,” and a faint smile passed over Jasper’s lips as the past flitted before his mind. But the smile died, and a groan of pain escaped him as he cried suddenly, “Quick! Let me tell it before it is too late! Maurice never will, but bear the shame all his life that my dead name may be untarnished. Bring Edith; she must hear the truth.”
She was soon there, and, lying in his mother’s arms, one hand in his cousin’s, and one on his sister’s bent head, Jasper rapidly told the secret which had burdened him for a year.
“I did it; I forged my uncle’s name when I had lost so heavily at play that I dared not tell my mother, or squander more of my own fortune. I deceived Maurice, and let him think the check a genuine one; I made him present it and get the money, and when all went well I fancied I was safe. But my uncle discovered it secretly, said nothing, and, believing Maurice the forger, disinherited him. I never knew this till the old man died, and then it was too late. I confessed to Maurice, and he forgave me. He said, ‘I am helpless now, shut out from the world, with nothing to lose or gain, and soon to be forgotten by those who once knew me, so let the suspicion of shame, if any such there be, still cling to me, and do you go your way, rich, happy, honorable, and untouched by any shadow on your fame.’ Mother, I let him do it, unconscious as he was that many knew the secret sin and fancied him the doer of it.”
“Hush, Jasper, let it pass. I can bear it; I promised your dear father to be your staunch friend through life, and I have only kept my word.”
“God knows you have, but now my life ends, and I cannot die till you are cleared. Edith, I told you half the truth, and you would have used it against him had not some angel sent this girl to touch your heart. You have done your part to atone for the past, now let me do mine. Mother, Tavie loves him, he has risked life and honor for me. Repay him generously and give him this.”
With feeble touch Sir Jasper tried to lay his sister’s hand in Treherne’s as he spoke; Mrs. Snowdon helped him, and as my lady bowed her head in silent acquiescence, a joyful smile shone on the dying man’s face.
“One more confession, and then I am ready,” he said, looking up into the face of the woman whom he had loved with all the power of a shallow nature. “It was a jest to you, Edith, but it was bitter earnest to me, for I loved you, sinful as it was. Ask your husband to forgive me, and tell him it was better I should die than live to mar a good man’s peace. Kiss me once, and make him happy for my sake.”
She touched his cold lips with remorseful tenderness, and in the same breath registered a vow to obey that dying prayer.
“Tavie dear, Maurice, my brother, God bless you both. Good-bye, Mother. He will be a better son than I have been to you.” Then, the reckless spirit of the man surviving to the last, Sir Jasper laughed faintly, as he seemed to beckon some invisible shape, and died saying gaily, “Now, Father Abbot, lead on, I’ll follow you.”
* * * * *
A year later three
weddings were celebrated on the same day and in the same church. Maurice
Treherne, a well man, led up his cousin. Frank Annon rewarded Blanche’s
patient siege by an unconditional surrender, and, to the infinite
amusement of Mrs. Grundy, Major Royston publicly confessed himself
outgeneraled by merry Rose. The triple wedding feast was celebrated at
Treherne Abbey, and no uncanny visitor marred its festivities, for never
again was the north gallery haunted by the ghostly Abbot.