THE WOMAN’S KINGDOM:
A LOVE STORY. BY THE AUTHOR OF “JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.”
MAMMA, only lis “Please do, n
, mammy darling!” “Lovey! we’ll be so good.” “Children, will yon hold your tongues, und not speak more than three at a time? The dear old mother is perfectly deafened with you.”
Mrs. Stedman smiled at her eldest son—her “right hand,” as she often called him—her grave, kind, helpful Julius; but it being, as he said, quite impossible for her to hear herself speak just then, she only shook her head with a Burleigh-like solemnity, and waited till the outburst subsided.
She had all her young flock at home for the holidays, which, especially in winter, most mothers will recognize as a position not the easiest
in the world. Yet Edna was well fitted to be the mother of boys. Within her tiny feminine body lurked a spirit unconquerable even by the husband who adored her, and the sons who inherited their own from her. Bright, brave, active, decided, she had learned to hold her own in the midst of the most tumultuous stale of things, as she did this day. And however gently she might utter it, all knew and recognized that her yea was yea, und her nay nayNo one ever attempted to gainsay or dispute either.
There arc bad women—God have mercy on them! fallen angels, worse than any men—BJ whom lovers, husbands, sons, are led on to destruction: but almost worse than these arc wenk women, who have sufficient good in them t o make them half loved while they are wholly despised, by the men belonging to them. No*, whether Mrs. Sted man’s sons loved her or not, it was at once seen that they respected her; respected her as gentle, wise firmness is ever respected; and relied on her, as upon quiet strength, whether of man or woman, children always learn to rely.
Silence being restored, she said—
“No, boys; I am very sorry for you, but you can not go skating to-day. The ice is not thick enongh.”
“But, mamma, I saw ever so many on it when Bob and I took Coesar down to the Serpentine after breakfast.”
“You did not go on it yourselves?”
“Of course not. We promised, you know,” said Will, with an injured air, at which his mother patted him on the shoulder tenderly.
“That’s my good boy—my good boys, whom I can always rely on. It is hard for you, I allow that; and many harum-scarum fool-hardy lads may tell you your mother is a great coward—”
“No, no, no!” cried all the lads in chorus, and declared she was the “pluckiest” little mother that ever lived.
“Very well,” she answered, langhing; “I am glad you think so.” And then seriously, “No, boys, I hope I can bear inevitable risks, nor do I shrink from lawful dangers. Julius will have one of these days to take his turn at the fever hospital; Will may go in for a Civil Service examination, and be off to India; and Robert turn sheep farmer in Australia, as soon as his schooling is done. I’ll hinder none of you from risking life in doing your duty; but I will hinder you, so long as you are in my care, from throwing away your lives in any reckless mauner. A pleasant thing for papa and me if you went out this forenoon, and were bronght home at diuner-time—drowned!”
“Ju says I’m born to be hanged, and so I shall never be drowned,” observed Bob, dryly.
“Drowned,” repeated Will, meditatively. Will was the clever one of the family; always striking out new and brilliant ideas. “It would be a curious thing to try what drowning is like. People say it is the easiest death that any one can die—quite pleasant indeed. Mamma, did you ever know any body who was drowned?”
“Hush!” said the eldest brother, quick to notice the slightest shadow in his mother’s face. “You forget Uncle Julius was drowned.”
No more questions were asked. Thongh the children knew no particulars, they were well aware that over the life and death of this unknown uncle, their father’s only brother, hung a tender sad mystery, which made their mother grave whenever his name was mentioned; and their father sometimes looked at Will, who was thonght to resemble him—looked, and turned away with a sigh. And when sometimes, being deluded, as fathers delight to be, into telling tales of his own boyhood to his boys, these adventures chanced to include Uncle Julius, he would break off abruptly, and his hearty merriment changed into the saddest silence. Also ,
I the elders noticed that, except concerning those j boyish days, their father never spoke much of Uncle Julius. Whether the latter had done something “nanghty,” thongh nobody ever hinted at such a thing, or whether he had been very unhappy or very unfortunate, the lads could none of them satisfactorily decide, though they often held long arguments with one another on the subject. But one thing was quite clear— Uncle Julius must have been a remarkable person, and very deeply loved by both their parents.
So, being boys trained from babyhood in the sweet tact which springs from lovingness, they let Will’s malapropos remark pass by without comment, and hung round their mother caressingly till they bronght her back to her own bright self again.
“Yes,” she said, langhing, “you are very good boys, I own, thongh you do worry mamma pretty well sometimes.”
“Do we, darling? We’ll never do so anymore.”
“Oh no, not till the next time. There, there, you babies.”
And she resigned her little fur-slippered foot for the twins to cuddle—the rosy, fat, goodtempered twins, rolling about like Newfoundland puppies on the heurth-rng—laid one hand on Bob’s light curls, suffered Will to seize, the other, and leaned her head against the tall shoulder of her eldest son, who petted his mother just as if she had been a beautiful young lady. Thus “subdivided,” as she called it, Edna stood among her five sons; and any stranger observing her might have thonght she had never had a care. But such a perfect life is impossible; and the long gap of years that there was between Robert and the twins, together with one little curl—that, wrapped in silver paper, lay always at the bottom of the mother’s housekeeping purse—could have told a different tale.
However, this was her own secret, hidden in her heart. When with her children, she was as merry as any one of them all.
“Come now,” said she, “since you are such good boys, and give up cheerfully your pleasures, not because mother wishes it, but because it is right—:”
“And also because mother wishes it,” lovingly remarked Julius.
“Well, well, I accept it as such; and in return I’ll make you all a handsome present—of my whole afternoon.”
Here uprose a shout of delight, for every one knew that the most valuable gift their mother could bestow on them was her time, always so well’ filled up, and her bright, blithe, pleasant company.
“It is settled then, boys. Now decide. Where will you take me to? Only it should be soma nice warm place. Mother can not stand the cold quite as you boys do. You must remember she is not so yoting as she used to be.”
“She is—she is!” cried the sons in indignant love; and the eldest pressed her to his warm young breast almost with the tears in his eyes. That deep affection—almost a passion— which sometimes exists between an eldest son and his mother, was evidently very strong here.
“I know what place mamma would like best —next best to a run into the country, where, of course, we can’t go now—I propose the National Gallery.”
Which was rather good of Bob, who, of himself, did not care two-pence for pictures; and when the others seconded the motion, and it was carried unanimously, his mother smiled a special “Thank you” to him, which raised the lad’s spirits exceedingly.
It was a lively walk throngh the Christmas streets, bright with holly and evergreens, and resplendent with every luxury that the shops could offer to Christmas purchasers. But Edna’s boys bonght nothing, and asked for nothing. They and she looked at all these treasures with delighted but unenvious eyes. They had been bronght up as a poor man’s children, even as she was a poor man’s wife— educated from boyhood in that noble self-denial which scorns to crave for any thing which it can not justly have. There was less need for carefulness now, and every time the mother looked at them—the five jewels of her matron crown—she thanked God that they would never be dropped into the dust of poverty; that, humanly speaking, there would be enongh forthcoming, both money and influence, all of their father’s own righteous earning, to set them fairly afloat in the world—before William and she laid down their heads together in the quiet sleep after toil—of which she began to think perhaps a little more than she used to do, years ago.
Yet when the boys would stop her before tempting jewelers’ or linen-drapers’ shops, making her say what she liked best, Edna would answer to each boy’s questions as to what he should give her “when he got rich—”
“Nothing, my darling, nothing. I think your father and I are the richest people in all this world.”
And when she got into the National Gallery, and more than one person turned to look after her—the little mother with such a lot of tall boys—Mrs. Stedman carried her head more erect than usual, and a Cornelia-like conceitedness dimpled round her mouth. Then, she being slightly fatigued—she was not the very strongest little woman in the world—Julius settled her carefully in the most comfortable seat he could find, and left her there in the midst of the pre-Raphaelite saints and martyrs, and medieval Holy Families, to spend some quiet minutes in pleasures which thronghout her busy life had been so rare. For many of Edna’s special tastes, as well as her husband’s, had been of necessity smothered down. In the long uphill strnggle of their early married life luxuries had been impossible. During all the years when her little ones were young she had
read few books, scarcely seen a picture, and confined her country pleasures to watching the leaves bud and grow green and fall, jn Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens. It was rarely that the busy mother got even a few minutes’ rest like this to go back to the day-dreams of her youth—now fading away in the realities, sad or sweet, of her inaturer days.
She almost felt like a girl again, as after a brief rest she rose, and took leisurely the circuit of the room, where many an old familinr picture looked at her with ghostly eyes—pictures fixed on her memory during the days when Letty and Julius, she and William, used to haunt this place. The years between seemed to collapse into nothing, and for a moment or two she felt almost as she felt then—at the ontset of her life, in the tender dawn of her love: her heart full of hope that colored every thing rose-hue, and faith in God and man that never knew a cloud.
Well, that time had gone by for them all four. She and William were middle-aged parents now; Letty and Julius—poor Letty! poor Julius!—she hardly knew which to grieve over most, the living or the dead.
So had passed all these passing shows of mortal life, fleet as a shadow that departeth; and still the fair Saint Catherine stood beside her wheel, smiling her martyr’s smile, and Del Piombo’s ghostly Lazarus arose out of the dark sepulchre, and the numberless Madounas who used to thrill Edna’s heart with an exquisite foreboding of what mother-bliss must be, sat, calm as ever, holding their Divine children in their arms—always children, who never grew up, never died. And Edna thonght of her own little lost baby—her one girl-baby of three months old—and tried to fancy how she looked now, perhaps not unlike these. Continually, among all her living children—her perpetual daily blessings—came the memory of this one, a blessing too, as our dead should always be to us, more and more perhaps the older we grow, since they bridge over the gulf between us and the world unseen. Edna was not the less a happy and a cheerful mother, that besides all these breathing, langhing, loving children, she had still another child—a little silent angel, waiting for her in the celestial land.
While she was thinking of these things in her own peaceful way, and enjoying the old delicious atmosphere of beauty and grace, which had been the fairy-land of her youth, her boy Robert, after romping about, tormenting alternately his two elders and the twins, came back to her.
” Mamma,” said he, in a loud whisper,” there’s a very grand lady staring at yon, and has been for ever so long. She looks as if she wanted to speak to you, but couldn’t make up her mind. Do you know her?”
Edna looked round. No mistaking the stately figure, the sweeping satin robes.
“Yes, I know her,” blushing while she spoke, and startled at the difficulty of explaining to
her boy that it was her own flesh and blood sister, as near to her as Julius or Will to him, who thus met her, looked, and—would she pass by? “I know her, Robert, but do not let us turn that way. She has seen me; she can come and speak to me if she chooses. It is your aunt, Mrs. Vanderdecken.”
“Oh!” said Bob, with difficulty repressing a whistle. “What a stuuning woman she is! But why doesn’t she come and speak to you, mamma—”
“Hush, she is coming.”
She came, slow and stately, and held out her hand with a patronizing air.
“You here, Edna? I thonght you never went any where.”
“Oh yes, I do sometimes, when my children carry me off with them. And you—who would have expected to find you here?”
“I came with my little girl. She is learning drawing under a celebrated artist—a lady artist of course, who Brings her here once a week or so to study the old masters. I leave them to go round together while I sit still. I don’t care for pictures.” Edna was silent.
“Besides, I am rather glad to give the child something to amuse her, for she has been rather mopy of late.”
“Not ill, I hope?”
“Oh no, only cross. Do your children never take sullen or obstinate fits, Edna? and how do you contrive to manage them? I wish you could teach me how to manage mine,” and Mrs. Vanderdecken sighed.
While speaking her distantly polite mauner had changed into a sort of querulous appeal— Letty’s old helplessness and habit of leaning upon every body, especially her sister. She made room for Mrs. Stedman beside her with something of a sisterly air.
Now Edna and her husband, without much speaking, had tacitly made up their minds on the subject of the Vanderdeckens. They both felt that ties of blood, so far as the duty of showing kindness goes, are never abrogated— but intimacy is a different thing. To keep up a show of respect where none exists—of love when it has been long killed dead—is the merest folly, or worst, falsehood. The doctor’s wife had not an atom of pride in her, and the condescending airs of her magnificent sister fell upon her perfectly harmless, almost uuperceived, but Letty’s total ignoring of the past, and meeting her, both on the two former occasions and to-day, as indifferently as if she were a common acquaintance, was such a mockery of kinship that she who had believed in flesh and blood ties with the passionate fervor of all loving hearts—until they are forced into disbelief—drew back within herself, utterly repelled and wounded—until she heard that sigh. Then she said, kindly—
“Letty, if I can help or advise you I would gladly do it. I have been a mother so many years now.”
“Ah, yes. How many children have you? I quite forget. But they are all boys. Now, I do think one girl is more trouble than half a dozen boys; at least, if she is such a self-willed little puss as mine. I often tell Gertrude I wish when she was a baby I had broken that obstinate will of hers.”
“Don’t say so,” replied Edna, earnestly. “I like my children to have a will of their own. I would never break it—only guide it.”
“But do they obey you? Are they at all afraid of you? Gertrude is not one bit afraid of me.”
“Children that obey from fear mostly turn out cither hypocrites or cowards. We rule ours by the pure sense of right. God’s will, which we try to teach them, is the real will to be obeyed, far beyond either their father’s or mine.”
“Ah, I can’t understand you—I never could. But Edna”—falling into the confidential tone of old days—” what would you do if one of your children had formed an acquaintance which you objected to, thongh you could not absolutely forbid it, and let you argue as you might with them they wouldn’t give it up?”
“Robert,” whispered his mother, “run back and stay with your brothers for a little. I want to talk to your aunt.”
And Robert, thongh dying with curiosity, obeyed.
“There, your boy obeys you in a minute, Edna. Now I might reason with my girl for an hour on the subject of that horrid old soldier. But I will just tell you the whole matter.”
She drew closer to Mrs. Stedman, and in vexed and injured tones explained, in her own lengthy and contradictory fashion, how Gertrude had made acquaintance with some poor invalided soldier who lived in the village, had taken a great fancy to him, and now that he was laid up ill at his lodgings wanted to go and see him. When refused, she had sulked and fretted till she made herself quite ill.
“The child must have a tender heart,” remarked Edna.
“Of course she has, and I’m sure I encourage it as much as possible. In her position she will have to be very charitable, so I always take her with me on district visiting, and put her name down below my own in subscription lists. But this is quite another matter. I told her I would give the poor man money, or send him his diuner every day, but as to her going to see him, it was quite impossible. Why, he lodges at a small public house.”
“Is he a bad man, or a man of low character?”
“How can I say? soldiers often are. But to tell the plain truth”—the plain truth generally came out at the tail end of Mrs. Vanderdecken’s confidences—”I don’t like to say too much against him, for he certainly once saved the child’s life—pulled her from under a railway train; and thongh I must own he has taken no advantage of this as yet, I mean in extorting money, still he might do so, and that would make Mr. Vanderdecken so angry.” “Indeed! but you, I should have thought—” “Ah, Edna, one isn’t always a rich woman because one is married to a rich man. I have every thing I want—can run up bills to any amount, but—would you believe it?—I rarely have a sovereign in my pocket to do what I like with. Not that I think Mr. Vanderdecken means to be unkind; it’s just his way; the way of all men, I suppose.”
“Not all,” said Edna, and thought of her own open-handed Will, who trusted her with every thing; who, like herself, never wantonly wasted a penny, and therefore had always an honest pound to spare for those that needed. And she looked with actual pity at her sister— so wealthy, yet so helplessly poor. “Yes, I can see yours is not an easy position. But does the child still fret? What does her father say?”
“Oh, he knows nothing at all about it. We never tell papa any thing. At least,” noticing Edna’s intense surprise, “we are obliged
to be very careful what we tell him. You see, Edna, my marriage is not exactly like yours. I being so very much younger than Mr. Vanderdecken, and perhaps—well, perhaps a little more taking in my appearance,” she smiled complacently, “he is apt to be just a bit jealous. He can not bear the least reference to my old ties, which accounts for my not seeing as much of you, dear, as I might do.”
“1 understand,” replied Edna, gravely.
“And to tell the whole truth,” it was dropping out bit by bit, “if I were to say to him that that poor soldier came from Calcutta. as Gertrude informs me he did, my husband, who has never forgotten the—the rather peculiar circumstances of my marriage, would be quite furious. It’s natural perhaps, but,” with a martyr-like sigh, “of course it is a little awkward for me.”
“A little awkward!” Edna Stedman turned upon her sister full, steady, indignant eyes. “A little awkward!” she repeated, and stopped.
And this was all that remained of the past; the terrible tragedy which even yet she and her husband could hardly bear to speak of; the agony of suspense which had darkened their life for months and years, until it was ended by receiving chance evidence which convinced them that Julius was not lost, but dead. His story was brief enough. On coming down to meet his betrothed at the ship, and finding her gone—she having quitted it at the Cape of Good Hope to be married to Mr. Vauderdecken—he had suddenly disappeared.
Disappeared totally, leaving his lodgings just as they were—and lying on the table, in an envelope addressed to Messrs. Marchmont and Co., a brief holograph will, bequeathing every thing he had to his brother, adding, “that he would never be heard of more.”
He never was. At first it was thought he might have committed suicide—gone voluntarily to face his Maker nnd ask Him the neveranswered question of so many miserable lives; but when the news was communicated to Dr. Stedman, ho refused to believe this. He thought rather that a fit of frantic despair had induced his brother to run away, so as to lose himself and his own identity for the time. So he instituted wide inquiries, and inserted advertisements in newspapers half over the world. But in vain.
At last Julius’s Indian servant brought to the office of Marchmont and Co. an old coat of his master’s, and a pocket-book, in which was written “Julius Stedman.” Both these he said he had got from an English sailor, who took them from a drowned “body,” quite uurecognizable, that had floated past his boat, down the Hoogly, three years before. How far the story was true could never be proved, but, in default of all other evidence, it was at last accepted and believed.
So that was the end. After another year’s clinging to desperate hope, the will was proved, the family put on mourning; and now for more than twelve years Julius Stedman had been numbered among the dead.
How much of all this Letty knew, Edna could not say. She herself having told her only the final fact in a letter which was never answered. Yet when she looked at her sister and remembered Julius, whom she had so often watched sauntering about these very rooms with his beloved on his arm, Mrs. Stedman thought, had Letty forgotten? Was it possible she could forget?
“Gertrude, you stupid child, don’t you see how you are trampling on my dress?”
The peevish tone, the entire absorption in this small annoyance of her little girl’s rough but affectionate ways—yes, Letty had forgotten! All that fearful history of a ruined life— ruined, by whose doing ?—was regarded by her ns “a little awkward,” nothing more.
But it was useless to speak, or to feel, in the matter; indeed Edna was incapable of a word. She only drew her little niece to her side and caressed her, in that lingering loving way with which she always looked at little girls now. And then lifting up her eyes, she saw entering
| the room, and glancing eagerly round in search of her, her husband.
“I had actually a spare hour this afternoon, Edna, so I thought I would follow you. Nurse told me where you were gone. ‘ I found the boys at once. Now lads, off with you home, for it is growing dark. Mamma and I will just idle about for a little and drive home together.”
And Dr. Stedman sat down beside his Edna with the air of n man who, after neorly a score of married years, still enjoys a stolen half hour of his wife’s company, and thinks her society the pleasantest in the world. The lady sitting on her other side he never noticed at all. « Now Edna knew her husband well; his strong, faithful, tender heart, which yet, under all its tenderness, had a keen sense of right and wrong, honor and dishonor, that no warmth of friendship or nearness of blood could ever set aside. She was well aware how he felt regarding Letty, and dreaded, with a kind of sick dismay, any meeting between them. But there was no alternative; it must take place.
“William,” she said, touching his hand, “this is my sister. You did not recognize her, I see.”
The blood rushed all over Dr. Stedman’s face, and he stepped back a moment with uncontrollable repugnance. Then he seemed to remember that at least they were a man and a woman—a gentleman and a ladv. He bowed, courteously, and when Letty offered him her hand he did not refuse it.
“I hope your husband is well? Is this your daughter?”
“Yes. Gertrude, shake hands with Dr. Stedman. She is a little like Edna, is she not?”
“Oh no,” he replied, hastily; “oh no!”
And this was all that passed.
For a minute or two more the three stood together, as they had stood so often on this very floor;—with a fourth, who was now— where? They must have thought of him, they could not but have done so, yet none of them gave the least sign. Alas, if we were all to speak out loud concerning these ghostly memories that rise up at many a festive board, or walk beside us with soundless feet down many a noisy street, what good would it be? Better keep a decent silence, and go on patiently between the two awful companies, which are ever surrounding us—the seen and the unseen—the living and the dead.
Though all preserved their composure, the position was so painful that even Mrs. Vanderdecken perceived she had better end it.
“I must go now,” she said. “Dr. Stedman, would you allow one of your boys to call up my carriage?”
“I will see you myself to it, Mrs. Vanderdecken.”
Coldly but courteonsly he offered her his arm, and they went descending the staircase together.
Edna, hardly knowing what she was about, so like a dream did it all seem, wandered mechanically on, looking at the mute pictures round her, chiefly portraits of dead men and women, on whose faces were strange histories —the equal histories of living men and women now.
Preoccupied as she was, she involuntarilystopped at one—Andrea Del Sarto’s portrait of himself. Robert Browning must have had it in his mind when he painted that wonderful word-picture of Del Sarto and his wife, “his beautiful Lucrezia, whom he loved.” All that sad story is plainly foreshadowed in the face —full of a man’s passion and a woman’s sensitiveness, perhaps also a woman’s weakness, which looks out from the centuries-old canvas; a face, typical of the artist-nature, in all ages :* often, too, foreboding the artist’s fate.
While looking, and moralizing over it, Edna suddenly recognized why the portrait had struck her with a strange familiarity. It was almost as like him as if it had been painted from him —poor lost Julius!
She stood absorbed, for it seemed to speak to her with its sad soft eyes, out of the depths of years, when she felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned round to her husband.
“Edna, what were you looking at?”
“That head. Don’t you see the strong resemblance?”
Dr. Stedman, less imaginative than his wife, might have passed it by, but the emotion in her countenance guided him at once. He too saw, as if it had risen up out of the grave, not Del Sarto’s face, but his dead brother’s, full of genius, life, and hope, whereon was no possible foreboding of the fate to come—a fate from which neither brother nor sister could save him.
Cain’s appeal, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” thongh uttered by a murderer, is not wholly untrue or unjust. Beyond a certain point no human being can help or save another. We think we can; we are strong and fearless, till tanght in many a bitter and humbling way that we are poor and blind, weak and miserable, and that in God’s hands alone are the spirits of all flesh, their guidance and their destinies.
But this is a hard lesson to learn. Edna saw, as she had seen many a time before daring those heavy years when her husband went mourning for his brother—ay, at times even amidst the happiness of his most happy home —the sharp pain amounting almost to self-reproach, as if surely something had been left undone, or done unwisely, by him, or Julius’s career would never have ended thus, in a grief the mystery of which was ten times worse than that of ordinary death.
She answered, as she sometimes ventured to do, the unspoken thonghts which by long experience she had learned to trace in William’s mind, almost as accurately as if they were in her own.
“Nay, dearest, you must not grieve. You could not help it—nor I. It was not our doing, and he is at rest now.”
“Yes, he is at rest. But—she?”
Will spoke beneath his breath—fiercely too—
so that his wife knew well enongh how much, for her sake, he had suppressed during the last half hour. Nor could she deny the truth— which he felt, thongh he did not utter it—that if ever a man’s life was wasted and destroyed, it was that of poor Julius; and it had been Letty’s doing. And yet—and yet—oh, if God reckoned up against us, not only the evil that we meant to do, but that which we have been either carelessly or foolishly instrumental in doing, where should any of us stand?
“Forgive her!” implored Edna, as some such thought as this passed throngh her mind —she, the mother of five children, who had all these young hearts in her hand, as it were, and knew not how in the unseen years to come they might be siuned against or siuning—needing from others the pity or pardon which their mother was not there to show. “Husband—forgive her! I think even Julius would do it, now.”
Dr. Stedman pressed his wife’s arm close to him and abruptly turned away.
For a little while longer they wandered about the rooms, talking of indifferent topies, for Edna knew that there are some things too sore to be spoken much about, even between husband and wife: until the rare comfort of an idle hour together soothed them both, and made them feel, as married people do—that all trouble is bearable so long as each is left to the other. Perhaps even after then—for such love is not a mortal but an immortal possession.
Then they descended, arm in arm, to where, in the chilly dark of Trafalgar Square, the doctor’s comfortable brongham was waiting.
“I am glad I have a warm cozy carriage to put my darling into now,” said William, as he wrapped her well up, and stepping in beside her, took her hand with lover-like tenderness.
Edna langhed—almost the langh of her girlhood—to hide the fact of two big tears which came now as quickly to her eyes as they used to do then.
“Will, you are so conceited;” and then leaning against his shoulder—creeping as close to him as the propriety of Pall Mall allowed, she whispered, “Oh, how happy we are—what a blessed life has been given to us—God make us thankful for it all!”
Gertrude missed and fretted after her friend the soldier for many days. He and his stories had taken firm hold of her imagination, and his feebleness and sickliness, together with the fact of his having saved her life, had made a strong impression upon her fond little heart.
Being questioned, she had told her mother, as she always did when catechised, every thing she was asked: so Mrs. Vanderdecken now knew all particulars regarding John Stone that were known to Gertrude herself. But this
roused in her shallow and self-absorbed mind no suspicion beyond an uneasy feeling that her daughter’s propensity for “low” society—gardeners, keepers, and the common people generally—must be stopped, and that this was a good opportunity for doing it. So having ascertained, in a roundabout way, that Stone was still lying ill at the “Goat and Compasses”—though not dying, or likely immediately to die—she communicated these facts to Gertrude, and promised, in the half-and-half way in which the weak mother often pacified the strong-willed child, to send and inquire for him every day—in return exacting a promise that Gertrude would on no account demean herself by going personally to see him.
This precaution taken, the lady left the whole matter to chance, and troubled herself no more about it: Letitia Vanderdecken being, like Letty Kenderdine, one of the many people who never shut the stable-door until the steed is stolen.
But one luckless day, when she rolled away in her splendid carriage for a three hours’ drive, her little daughter having contrived to get rid of Nurse, went roaming the park in weary longing for something to do, somebody to play with —a permanent want with the rich man’s daughter. At last, in a sort of despair, poor little Miss Vanderdecken was driven to perch herself, like any common child, on the stile which divided Holywell Park from the furzy moor, where she could watch, and envy not a little, the groups of common children who, just turned out of the school-house, were disporting themselves there.
It was one of those soft days, mild as spring, which had followed the breaking up of the frost, and the January sunshine, pale but sweet, slanted across the moorland like a sick man’s smile. Crawling along like a fly upon a wall, and like herself, idly watching the school children, Gertrude perceived her friend John Stone.
Now, her mother had forbidden her to go and see him, and Gertrude always literally kept to her promises; but she had never promised not to speak to him if she met him; Mrs. Vanderdecken, who had heard, not without a vague sense of relief, that the sick man was not likely soon to get better, having never thought of providing against such a possibility. Consequently, the first thing the little maid did was to jump down from her stile and greet him in an eestasy of delight, at which Stone was much bewildered.
He must have been very ill, so ill as almost to confuse his mind, for he regarded the little red-cloaked elf as if he had never seen her before.
“I don’t remember you. What do you want?”
Gertrude was a quick child, and possessed by instinct that precocious motherliness which some little girls show to all sick people whom they have to do with. She said, gently—
“Oh, I dare say you have forgotten me, you
have been so ill. I am Gertrude Vanderdecken, the little girl you used to tell stories to, and I have missed you so much.”
“Missed me? Is there any body in the world who would have missed me?”
“Oh yes, and I would have come and seen you had I been allowed, but mamma said—”
“Who is your mamma?” Then, as if memory came back in a sudden flash, overwhelming him and changing his dull apathy into that fierce half insane look which always made the child shrink, though she was too ignorant to be mnch afraid. “Oh yes, I know, I remember. Go away, I want to get rid of you, of all belonging to you. Leave me; let me die quietly— quietly.”
He stopped, and fell into such a paroxysm of coughing that it left him quite exhausted. He found himself sitting on the stile, with the little girl holding his hand.
“You have not left me, child? I told yon to go.”
“But I did not wish to go,” said Gertrude, who had been slowly making up her mind to a proceeding, daring indeed, and worthy of the tender romance which lay deep in her nature. She determined, henceforward, to take this poor sick man underherimmediate protection, though in what way she did not quite know; and the first step was to get over her mother’s violent prejudice against him. She thought if they could once meet, if her mamma could but talk with him quietly, his poor worn sickly face and shrunken figure, and above all the air of refinement, which made him so different from the “common people,”asMrs. Vanderdecken called them, would make her as much interested in him as Gertrude was herself.
So she concocted a plan for a sudden and unexpected interview between the two—her mother and the poor soldier—which did her little brain considerable credit, and was almost as romantic as the stories she read, or those she was in the habit of making “out of her own head.”
“This is far too cold a place for you to sit in,” said she, demurely. “Come with me, and I’ll take you to our winter garden, where you’ll find it so warm; almost like being in India.”
“Oh!” said Stone, shivering, “if I could only get warm. I feel as if I should never be warm again;” and the impulse of physical suffering, which seemed uppermost in him now, added to that state of weakness in which a sick person can be persuaded by any body to any thing, made him submit to Gertrude’s guidance, almost in spite of himself. She took him by the hand and led him across the park; but when they came in sight of the white, stonefronted, handsome house, she stopped.
“Is your mother there?”
“I think not: she is out driving—at least she was out.”
“No prevarication; no weak deceptions; you’ll learn them soon enough. Where is your mother?”
“I don’t know,”said the child, boldly, “and if I did I wouldn’t tell yon, for you look as if you meant to be rude to her, and you onght not, for she has never done you any harm, and would be very kind to you if she knew you—I am sure she would. She is exceedingly charitable to”—poor people, Gertrude was going to say, but stopped.
“Exceedingly charitable! A most amiable generous lady—quite a Lady Bountiful! And that is the house she lives in; whence she would kindly throw a crumb or two to a poor wretched fellow like me, or if I laid me down at her gate she would send her lap-dog out to lick my sores. Excellent—excellent!”
Gertrude was no coward, or she might have been frightened at the way the man talked and looked. But when she set her mind upon doing a thing, she rarely let it slip undone.
“Come,” she said, taking firm hold of his hand again, “don’t talk, talking is bad for you. Just come with me into the winter garden.” And he came.
It was one of those floral palaces, originated by Sir Joseph Paxton, and now often to be seen in the domains of our merchant princes, who, like Mr. Vanderdecken, seldom enjoy or appreciate, but only pay for them. Under a high circular glass dome grew fresh, as if in their native clime, all sorts of tropical bulbs—palms, bananas, and so on—while ranged round in that exquisite art which knows its best skill is to imitate nature, were a mass of flowering plants, which burst upon the eye in such a glory of form and color as to transform January into June.
When, the instant Gertrude opened the door, the moist, warm, perfumed atmosphere greeted Stone’s delicate senses, he drank it in with a deep breath of delight.
“Truly this feels like what Mrs. Fox would call’another and a better world,’ which a week since I was supposed to be going to. I wish I were there now.”
“Where?” asked Gertrude, iunocently.
“In heaven, if there be such a place. Do you think there is, child?”
She looked puzzled, half shocked, and answered, a little primly, ” Mamma says we onght not to talk about those sort of things except on Sundays.”
“Ha, ha! Of course not. What should she know about heaven any more than I? But tell her, when she gets there, as no doubt she will, being such a very benevolent lady—tell her to look over the gates of it at me, frying slowly, down in the other place.”
Here, catching Gertrude’s horrified look, Stone paused, struck by the same vague compunction which makes the proffigate hold his tongue before an iunocent girl, or the drunkard snatch from the young boy’s hand the accursed glass.
“Never mind me, I was talking nonsense. I often do. My head is not quite right. I wish somebody would put it right.” And he
sighed, in that sad helplessness which went to the very bottom of the little maiden’s heart.
She plauned, with the quickness of lightning, the rest of her scheme.
“I know somebody who would cure yon at once. Did you, ever go to see him, as you said you would—Aunt Edna’s husband, Dr. Stedman?”
Stone sprang up from the easy garden chair where the child had placed him, and glared round him with the eye of a hunted animal.
“Don’t speak about him, don’t remind me of him, or tell him of me. Let me go! I am a poor lost miserable man, that only wants to lay him down and die, in any quiet corner, out of every body’s reach. I have changed my mind now—I’ll promise to harm nobody, punish nobody, only let me die.”
“But I don’t want you to die,” said Gertrude, upon whose childish ignorance two-thirds of his wild talk fell quite harmlessly—considered, as he said, to be mere ” nonsense.” “If you went to Dr. Stedman he would make yon well. I am certain he would, for I have seen him myself now, and he looks so clever and so kind. I would go and tell him or Aunt Edna all about you, only something happened last week.”
“What happened? Anv of them dead?” “Oh no!”
“That’s right. They must live and be happy. Nobody onght to die except me. And I can not. Oh that I could! I am so tired, so tired.”
He looked up at the child, as she stood over him, in her precocious womanly protectingness. Her little firm face trembled, but only with pity. She was not one bit irresolute or afraid.
“It is great nonsense talking about dying,” said the little maid, imperatively. “You are not nearly Bo old as papa, and I won’t let him die for many years yet, for I love him dearly, and he is very good to me, even thongh he was cross at that thing which happened.”
“What was it?”
“Perhaps 1 onght not to tell you. Mamma said I had better not talk about it, it was not respectable to have coolness between relations; but one day when we were in London we met the Stedmans—Aunt Edna, and her husband, and all the boys—and when I told papa, for he asked me, as he always does, where I had been and who I had seen, and, of course, I was obliged to speak the truth—wasn’t I now? —he was so excessively angry, and told mamma he would not let his little girl have any thing to do with them, for he hated the very name of Stedman.”
“Why? Did he say why?”
“I think, because of that uncle I told yon about, the poor man who was drowned. He must have known about him, and disliked hiin, for he began speaking of him to mamma, abusing him very much, called him a peuniless worthless fellow, and that every body must have been glad when he died.”
“Every body glad when he died!” repeated Stone beneath his breath.
“Papa said it, and mamma seemed to think so too; but then she never dares contradict papa when he is in one of his passions. Still, for all that,” continued Gertrude, chattering, and as if glad to have out in words what she seemed to have been deeply thinking about, “I can’t get the poor man out of my head. I feel sorry for him. He might not have been a very bad man, or would have grown better if he had had any body to be kind to him. But away from his brother and Aunt Edna, living out there in India quite alone, with nobody to take care of him or be fond of him, what could he do?”
“Children and fools speak truth,” cried Stone, violently. “But I’ve heard enough. What does it matter? He is dead now—dead and forgotten. What’s the use of prating about him?”
Gertrude turned upon the soldier the wondering reproach which nature—no, Heaven— often puts into the innocence of children’s eyes:—”Why, do not you, too, feel sorry for the poor man?”
“Sorry? Not I. There is a saying, ‘As yon make your bed, you must lie upon it.’ He did. But no! he did not make it: it was made for him—full of briers and thorns and stinging serpents. A wicked woman did it all!”
Gertrude opened her eyes in the utmost astonishment.
“Should you like to hear about her, child? It would be a pretty tale—a very pretty tale— as interesting as any you ever heard. And you could tell it to your mother afterward. Ay, tell her — tell her. That is a grand idea! I wonder I never thought of it before.”
Stone’s whole frame quivered with excitement as he spoke; but Gertrude’s own curiosity was too eager for her to notice his agitation much.
“Oh, do tell me—I should so like to know! But how did you come to know about him— this Julius Stedmnn—was not that his name?”
“Yes,” answered Stone, slowly. “Julius Sledman—that was his name. He was the friend—of a friend of mine.”
“And what was he like? Did you ever see him ?—with your very own eyes?”
Stone paused again ere he answered, with a queer sort of smile, “No, I never met him.”
Then, regaining forcibly his self-possession, he began, and in his old fashion—he had in a remarkable degree the artist faculty of graphic narration — he told, as vividly as any of his other stories, the story of the young painter and the beautiful lady with whom he was so passionately in love.
Nature stirs in a child’s heart often sooner than we think: there are very few little maidens of twelve who can not understand and appreciate a love story. Gertrude listened, intensely interested.
“And was she very beautiful? As beautiful as”—the child stopped for a comparison— “as mamma?”
“You may langh!” said Gertrude, rather angrily, “but mamma was once very beautiful. Every body says so; and she has lots of portraits of herself, done when she was young —only she keeps them locked up in n drawer, for papa can not beur the sight of them. But they are so lovely, you don’t know! Mamma must have been quite ns handsome as that lady —what was her name?”
“What is your mamma’s name?”
“Letitia; but I heard Aunt Edna call her Letty.”
The soldier dropped his head within his hands. Some ghostly memory, sweet as the hyacinth-breaths beside him, which every spring comes freshly telling us of many a spring departed—dead, and yet for ever undying—must have swept over him, annihilating every thing but the delusive, never-to-be-forgotten dream of passionate love; for he said to the child—the child so utterly unlike her mother that her flesh-and-blood presence affected him less than this accidental word—
“Not Letty. No, we’ll not call her Letty. It was such a pretty name—such a sweet, dear namel And she was a wicked woman, as I said. She murdered him!”
Gertrude drew back, horrified.
“I don’t mean that she killed him bodily— with a pistol or dagger. But there are other ways of murdering a man besides these. I’ll tell you how she did it. And you’ll not forget, child?—you’ll tell it, word for word, to your mother, some day?”
“Oh yes,” said Gertrude, and again bent all her mind to listen.
It was a touching story, even to a child. How, far away in India, the young man had worked—at work he did not care for—to make a home for his betrothed bride: how he had strained his means to the utmost, that she should have therein every luxury she could care for (“She liked luxuries—pretty clothes, handsome jewelry,” said Stone, in parenthesis); and how, almost beside himself with happiness, he had gone down to the ship to meet her—his all but wife—his very, very own.
“And she came?” cried Gertrude, breathless with emotion.
“The ship came,” said Stone, in a cold, hard voice. “She was not there.”
Gertrude almost sobbed. “Was she—was she dead?”
“Oh no! only married.”
And then he related, in a few sharp, biting words—for his breath seemed almost gone— how, on the voyage, a rich man had fallen in love with her (“She was so very beautiful, you know!”), and she had landed at a port half-way, where his estate was, and married him.
“What a wicked, wicked woman! I hate her.” And as she said this Gertrude clenched her little hand. Tears—those holy childish tears which burst out irrepressiblv at any story of cruelty or wrong—fell thick and fast; and her whole frame was trembling with more than sorrow—indignation. “I hate her!”
Stone had said revenge was sweet. He tasted it fully now. But the taste could not have been quite so sweet as he expected; for, instead of exulting over it, he rather drew back.
“Hush, child—don’t say you hate her!”
“But she was wicked—you told me so.”
“If I did, you need not say it. Children can not understand these things.”
And a strange remorse came over him—the childless man—for having put into any daughter’s hand a weapon that might pierce her mother to the heart. He had not thought of this at first: he had thought only of revenge—revenge, no matter how, or by what means—but now, when he heard the child’s words, and saw her little face glowing with righteous wrath, he shrank back from the fire his own hands had kindled.
“Stop a minute,” he said. “The world might not judge her so harshly. Many people would say she had only made a prudent marriage: and that the man—her lover—if he had any manhood in him, ought to have got over it, lived an honest life, and died beloved and respected.”
“But he did die: he was drowned, I know. Where was it?—how?”
Stone could not answer. Even a hardened liar might have been staggered by the accusing
earnestness of the child’s eyes. And this man, once so gentle—who, however often sinning, never sinned without repenting—he knew not what to do; until, whether for good or ill, fate interposed.
Fate, sweeping along in the purple silken robes and white ermine mantle of Mrs. Vanderdecken herself.
“Gertrude! Bless me! My dear Gertrude!”
No wonder, perhaps, at the reproving sharpness of the lady’s tone. It was a trial. To see —sitting in her beautiful conservatory, and beside her very own daughter—a man, not merely one of the “lower orders,” as she termed them, but the very man for whom, from being indebted to him for an uupaid kindness (weak people so shrink from the burden of gratitude!) she had conceived as much repugnance as her easy nature was capable of feeling. The more, as he paid her none of the almost servile respect which Mrs. Vanderdeckenwas accustomed to receive from her inferiors; made no attempt to rise or bow, did not even take off his hat, but sat doggedly there, staring at her. Once, as her voice and the rustle of her dress reached his ears, he shivered. It might have been a blast of cold air from the opened door, or else —who knows?—some breath that the still beautiful woman had brought with her from the rose-gardens of his passionate youth—those lost love-roses, of which, though form and color have been obliterated in dusty death, the perfume never wholly dies.
As to Mrs. Vauderdecken, all she beheld was a shabby-looking, bearded man, with a pair of gleaming eyes, which looked as if they would burn her up—devouring all her grace and quiet grandeur, though without—and she felt this, dull as she was—without having the slightest awe of either.
“Gertrude,” she said, uneasily, “who is this —this person?”
“Mamma, don’t you remember him? Mr. Stone—whom Bran bit—who was so good to me. He has been very, very ill, and I brought him in here because it is so nice and warm. He likes warmth—he has just come from India, you know.”
“Oh,indeed,”said Mrs. Vanderdecken, carelessly.
Gertrude whispered in earnest entreaty, “Mamma, please speak to him — be a little kind to him.”
“I am sure, my dear, I am always ready to show kindness to any poor people who need it, and especially to poor people in whom you are interested. But, really, you sometimes choose such extraordinary sort of folk to make friends with, and show your charity in such an unsuitable way! In this instance”—and«her cold eye wandered carelessly over the shabby soldier, and she spoke with the tone of dignified rebuke which she was in the habit of using to the drunkards and slatterns of her district—” you must perceive, my good man, that for you to meet Miss Vanderdecken in this way, and let her bring yon into our own private domains, is quite uupardonable. In fact”—growing more angry under the absolute silence of her hearer—” I consider it a most impertinent intrusion, and desire that it may never occur again.”
“Mamma—oh, mamma!” pleaded Gertrude, but Stone took no notice whatever. He sat, as if in a dream, staring blankly at Mrs. Vanderdecken.
The lady at last grew a little uncomfortable, so fixed was the gaze, so impassive the attitude of this strange fellow, who seemed to exercise over Gertrude a perfect fascination.
“Come in, child—tea has been waiting this half hour, and I have to dress. You forget we have a dinner-party to-night. For you,” turning to Stone, “as my daughter says you are an invalid, I will overlook your rudeness—for once; and since she is kind enough to take an interest in you, I shall be glad to assist you—with soup tickets, or out of my village clothing fund, if you will give me your name and address, also —I always exact this—a certificate of character.”
“No,” thundered out the broken-down man confronting the elegant rich woman. “I’ll give you nothing—I’ll accept nothing from you. Let me go.”
He rose, and staggered past her, then turned, and seeing her left hand hanging down—white, glittering with many rings—he seized it, regarded it a minute, crushed it in his own with a fierce pressure, and flung it away.
Mrs. Vanderdecken gave a little scream, but
the conservatory door had closed, and he was gone. Then her indignation, not unmixed with fear, burst out.
“Gertrude, this protigt of yours is the rudest fellow I ever saw—a perfect. boor. A thief, too! for I am certain he meant to rob me. Didn’t you see him make a snatch at my rings? I wonder if they are safe—one, two, three—yes, all right. What a mercy! Only think, if he had stolen these beautiful diamonds.”
“Mamma!” cried Gertrude, half in reproach, half in entreaty, for she did not know what to say. Undoubtedly the poor soldier had been very rude, and yet she could not believe him to be a thief. But all her little plan had fallen to the ground. She saw her mother was seriously displeased, and her common-sense told her it was not without cause. The poor child thought she would never try romantic schemes for doing people good again.
Perplexed and miserable, she walked by her mother’s side into the house, where she received her cup of tea, and the severe scolding which accompanied it, with a sad humility, and then waited beside Mrs. Vanderdecken while she dressed for a dinner-party. The little plain child had an ardent admiration for her mamma’s beauty, and while she was meditatively watching the maid comb out those masses of long light hair, in which there was scarcely a gray thread visible, Mrs. Vanderdecken, chancing to turn round, saw her little girl’s earnest looks, and smiled, mollified.
“Come, my dear,” said she, holding out her hand, “I’ll not scold you any more. We will be the best of friends, if only you promise to have nothing more to do with that ruffianly soldier.”
“But I can’t promise; and he isn’t a ruffian, indeed,” said Gertrude, piteously, yet very decidedly. She was an obstinate little thing, and had a trick of always holding fastest to her friends when they happened to be down in the world. “You would not say so, mamma, if you once heard him talk as be talks to me—as he had been talking all this afternoon.”
“All the afternoon!” cried the mother, in dismay; “a young lady like you to be talking a whole afternoon with a low fellow like him! It’s dreadful to think of. I am perfectly ashamed of yon. What on earth were you talking about? Tell me every word. I command you!”
Here Gertrude became much perplexed. Somehow or other, whenever she spoke of the Stedmans, she had always got into trouble with cither father or mother, or both; and so she had resolved in that strong reserved little heart of hers to shut them up tight there, and never refer to any of them again. She had kept this resolution so well that, in spite of the charming excitement of this afternoon’s discovery concerning poor Uncle Julius, for the last half hour she had borne her mamma’s reproaches in perfect silence, nor let herself be betrayed into the slightest allusion to the story which had interested her so much. Now, being plainly questioned, she was obliged to speak out.
“I’ll tell you any thing you choose, mamma,” said she, sullenly, “but I know it will only make you cross. I was hearing a long story about a person whom neither you nor papa like, and whom you told me never to speak about, and I wouldn’t speak, if you didn’t ask me.”
” What nonsense, child! Who was it?”
“Uncle Stedman’s brother—Julius.”
Had a ghost risen up before her Mrs. Vanderdecken could not have been more startled. Her very lips whitened as she said,
“There must be some mistake. Gertrude, how could you possibly know—”
“Of course I know, mamma. Didn’t I hear you and papa talking about him? and didn’t you yourself tell me who he was, and that he was drowned? I know all about him now,” added the child, with childish ‘conceit. “Mr. Stone told me his whole story.”
“His whole story?”
“Yes, mamma, about his being an artist when he was young, and his falling in love with a beautiful lady, and his giving up painting and going to India to make a fortune for her sake; how she promised to come out to him and marry him; how—”
“Stop, child,” interrupted Mrs. Vanderdecken, with a subdued and even frightened air; “please don’t go chattering on so fast. I can’t attend to you. Wait till I am dressed. Take your book and be quiet for a little.”
Gertrude obeyed, yet still cast furtive glances at her mother, who arranged her dress and clasped her ornaments in a hurried, absent mauner, quite unusual for one who was generally so particular about these things.
“Mamma, what is the matter with you? Are you ill? You look so white.”
No more passed until the maid was dismissed, and the lady sat down on the sofa by the fire, her toilet complete—and an especially resplendent toilet it was; but, for once, it proved no consolation to her.
Mrs. Vanderdecken was very nervous; nervous was the word—not startled, or shocked, or grieved, but merely frightened. A vague apprehension seized her of something going to happen. Was it because, after this long safe blank of many years, somebody had turned up who knew something of her past life, or merely because of the surprise of hearing from her little danghter’s lips that once familiar name? True, it was only a name. Julius Stedman was dead, and could not harm her. Living he might, or she fancied so, being a coward in her heart, and knowing well her husband’s jealous temper, nurtured by that faint fear similar to the one which Brabantio first puts into the mind of Othello:
“Look to her, Moor; have n quick eye to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee.”
For—such is human nature, and so surely does fate take its revenge—it had been one of the
troubles in Mrs. Vanderdecken’s married life to be not seldom taunted for her broken pledge by the very man for whom she had broken it Mr. Vanderdecken, of course, had known all about Julius Stedman at the time, but, being passionately in love, he had seen in her falseness to one man no obstacle to her marriage with another, since that other happened to be himself. Afterward, when the desperation of love had cooled down into the indifference that was sure, at best, to be the outcome of such a marriage, he despised his wife, and took care to let her see that he did, for doing that which he himself had persuaded her to do. It was natural, perhaps, and still, poor woman! it was rather hard.
“Gertrude,” she said, turning with a helpless appeal to her child, who, thinking still that she was not well, had stolen up to her and taken her hand. “Gertrude, you must not vex your poor mother, who has nobody to be a comfort to her but you. You must make her your chief companion, and tell her every thing, instead of taking queer fancies for old soldiers and such like.”
“But, mamma, I never take any fancies that make me forget yon,” said the little girl, earnestly. “And that story, it was no secret. He said I might tell it you whenever I liked.”
“Did he? Who is he? Oh, you mean the man John Stone? Didn’t you tell me that was his name? Did he ever know that—that person?”
“Uncle Stedman’s brother, whom you dislike so? No; he told me he had never seen him in his life.” ,
Mrs. Vanderdecken breathed freer. Struck with a vague apprehension, she had been beating about the bush, afraid, and yet most anxious to find out how much her danghter knew; but now she ventured to say, carelessly, taking out her watch:
“I have just ten minutes left. You may tell me the story if you like, and if it amuses you.”
“It wasn’t at all amusing, mamma. I think it was the saddest story I ever heard. Just listen.” ■
And then with the vividness with which Stone’s words had impressed it on her mind, and with a childish simplicity that added to its touchingness, she repeated, almost literally, what she had just heard.
Her mother listened, too much startled—nay, terrified—to interrupt her by a word. The whole history was accurate down to the remotest particulars, facts so trifling that it seemed impossible for any stranger to have heard them—nay, they had escaped her own memory, till revived like invisible writing, by being thus bronght to light in such an unforeseen and overwhelming mauner. It seemed as if an accusing angel spoke to her from the lips of her own child; as if, after all this lapse of years and change of circumstances, the sins of her youth, which she had glossed over and palliated, and almost believed to be no sin at all, because no punish
ment had ever followed them, rose up and confronted her. Also, her condemnation came from the one creature in the world whom she loved dearly, purely, and unselfishly—her only child.
“Was she not a wicked woman, mamma?” said Gertrude, lifting up her glowing face and looking straight into her mother’s. “After she had made him miserable so long, first pretending she liked him, then to change her mind and refuse him? When she had at last faithfully promised to marry him, and he was expecting her, and was so happy, to break her word and go and marry another man!”
“Who was the man?” asked the mother, in an agony of dread. ” Did—did he tell you the name?”
“No; only that he was rich and Mr. Stedman was poor. That was why she did it. Wasn’t it a wicked, cruel thing? Oh, mamma,” cried Gertrude, in a burst of indignation, “if ever, when I grow up, I were to meet that lady I should hate her. I know I should. I couldn’t help it.”
Mrs. Vanderdecken shivered. All through her fineries—her silks, and laces, and jewels, she shivered; and clutched the hand of her little daughter as if she were drowning—like that poor, drowned Julius—and her child’s affection were the only plank to which she clung.
But soon every other feeling was absorbed in apprehension—the overpowering, irrational terror which seizes upon all weak natures when brought face to face with a difficulty the extent of which their cowardice momentarily exaggerates. Therefore, site did what such folks generally do, she adopted the line of pacification and deprecation.
“Gertrude, my dear, I am glad you have told me this story. It is exceedingly interesting, and it was kind of you to be so sorry for the poor man. Perhaps he never meant to rob me, only just to look at my diamonds. I wonder how he came to know these facts, if they are facts. Did he tell you any thing moro?”
“I should almost like to speak to him myself. He might have heard particulars which the family would be glad to know.”
“Oh, mamma, if only you would see him! May I go to him and tell him you will?”
“No, no!” said Mrs. Vanderdecken, hastily. “Not upon any account, my dear. Don’t go near him, and if you meet him promise me— hark! isn’t that your father?”
And the sound of heavy boots coming up stairs made her not wince and look annoyed, as was her wont, but actually tremble.
“Gertrude,” she cried, in an agony, “promise me that you will not breathe a word to your father of all this?”
Very well, mamma,” said Gertrude, greatly puzzled and a little vexed; but she was used to her mother’s feeblenesses and inconsistencies, and had learned to regard them with a patience .not wholly unallied to contempt.
Yet she was fond of her, and when, ere her dismissal, she got a warmer kiss than usual, Gertrude went away quite happy.
Not so Mrs. Vanderdecken. Out of the smooth surface of her dull, easy life had risen up a great fear. Avenging Fate, whipping her with the cruelest scourge by which wrong-doing is ever punished, had humiliated her before, and caused her to stand in actual dread of, lier own child.
THE MOONSTONE MASS.
THERE was a certain weakness possessed by my ancestors, though in nowise peculiar to them, and of which, in common with other more or less undesirable traits, I have come into the inheritance.
It was the fear of dying in poverty. That, too, in the face of a goodly share of pelf stored in stocks, and lands, and copper-bottomed clippers, or what stood for copper-bottomed clippers, or rather sailed for them, in the clumsy commerce of their times.
There was one old fellow in particular—his portrait is hanging over the hall stove to-day, leaning forward, somewhat blistered by the profuse heat und wasted fuel there, and as if as long as such an outrageous expenditure of ailoric was going on he meant to have the full benefit of it—who is said to have frequently shed tears over the probable price of his dinner, and on the next day to have sent home a silver dish to eat it from at a hundred times the cost. I find the inconsistencies of this individual constantly cropping out in myself; and although I could by no possibility be called a niggard, yet I confess that even now my prodigalities make me shiver.
Some years ago I was the proprietor of the old family estate, unencumbered by any thing except timber, that is worth its weight in gold yet, as you might say; alone in the world, save for an unloved relative; and with a sufficiently comfortable income, as I have since discovered, to meet all reasonable wants. I had, moreover, promised me in marriage the hand of a woman without a peer, and which, I believe now, might have been mine on any day when I saw fit to claim it.
That I loved Eleanor tenderly and truly you can not doubt; that I desired to bring her home, to see her flitting here and there in my dark old house, illuminating it with her youth and beauty, sitting at the head of my table that sparkled with its gold and silver heir-looms, making my days and nights like one delightful dream, was just as true.
And yet I hesitated. I looked over my bankbook—I cast up my accounts. I have enough for one, I said; I am not sure that it is enough for two. Eleanor, daintily nurtured, requires as dainty care for all time to come; moreover, it is not two alone to be considered, for should children come, there is their education, their maintenance, their future provision and portion to be found. All this would impoverish us, and unless we ended by becoming mere dependents, we had, to my excited vision, only the cold charity of the world and the work-house to which to look forward. I do not believe that Eleanor thonght me right in so much of the matter as I saw fit to explain, but in maiden pride her lips perforce were sealed. She langhed thongh, when I confessed my work-house fear, and said that for her part she was thankful there was such a refnge at all, standing as it did on its knoll in the midst of green fields, and shaded by broad-limbed oaks—she had always envied the old women sitting there by their evening fireside, and mumbling over their small affairs to one another. But all her words seemed merely idle badinage—so I delayed. I said— when this ship sails in, when that dividend is declared, when I seo how this speculation turns out—the days were long that added “up the count of years, the nights were dreary; but I believed that I was actuated by principle, and took pride to myself for my strength and selfdenial.
Moreover, old Paul, my great-uncle on my mother’s side, and the millionaire of the family, was a bitter misogynist, and regarded women and marriage and household cares as the three remediless mistakes of an overruling Providence. He knew of my engagement to, Eleanor, but so long as it remained in that stage he had nothing to say. Let me once marry, and my share of his million would be best represented by a cipher. However, he was not a man to adore, and he could not live forever.
Still, with all my own effort, I amassed wealth but slowly, according to my standard; my various ventures had various luck; and one day my old Uncle Paul, always intensely interested in the subject, both scientifically and from a commercial point of view, too old and feeble to go himself, but fain to send a proxy, and desirous of money in the family, made me an offer of that portion of his wealth on my return which would be mine on his demise, funded safely subject to my order, provided I made one of those who songht the discovery of the Northwest Passage.
I went to town, canvassed the matter with the experts — I had always an adventurous streak, as old Paul well knew—and having given many hours to the pursuit of the smaller sciences, had a turn for danger and discovery as well. And when the Albatross sailed—in spite of Eleanor’s shivering remonstrance and prayers and tears, in spite of the grave looks of my friends—I was one of those that clustered on her deck, prepared for either fate. They— my companions—it is true, were led by nobler lights; but as for me, it was much as I told Eleanor—my affairs were so regulated that they would go on uninterruptedly in my absence; I should be no worse off for going, and if I returned, letting alone the renown of the thing, my Uncle Paul’s donation was to be appropriated; every thing then was assured, and
we stood possessed of lucky lives. If I had any keen or eager desire of search, any purpose to aid the growth of the world or to penetrate the secrets of its formation, as indeed I think I must have had, I did not at that time know any thing about it. But I was to learn that death and stillness have no kingdom on this globe, and that even in the extremes! bitterness of cold and ice perpetual interchange and motion is taking place. So we went, all sails set on favorable winds, bounding over blue sea, skirting frowning coasts, and ever pushing our way up into the dark mystery of the North.
I shall not delay here to tell of Danish posts and the hospitality of summer settlements in their long afternoon of arctic daylight; nor will I weary you with any description of the succulence of the radishes that grew under the panes of glass in the Governor’s scrap of moss and soil, scarcely of more size than a lady’s parlor fernery, and which seemed to our dry mouths full of all the earth’s cool juices—but advance, as we ourselves hastened to do, while that chill and crystalline sun shone, up into the ice-cased dens and caverns of the Pole. By the time that the long, blue twilight fell, when the rough and rasping cold sheathed all the atmosphere, and the great stars pricked themselves out on the heavens like spears’ points, the Albatross was hauled up for winter-quarters, banked and boarded, heaved high on fields of ice; and all her inmates, during the wintry dark, led the life that prepared them for further exploits in higher latitudes the coming year, learning the dialects of the Esquimaux, the tricks of the seal and walrus, making long explorations with the dogs and Glipuu, their master, breaking ourselves in for business that had no play about it.
Then, at last, the Angust suns set us free again; inlets of tumultuous water traversed the great ice-floes; the Albatross, refitted, ruffled all her plumage and spread her wings once more for the North—for the secret that sat there domineering all its substance.
It was a year since we had heard from home; but who staid to think of that while our keel spurned into foam the sheets of steely seas, and day by day bronght us nearer to the hidden things we songht? For myself I confess that, now so close to the end as it seemed, curiosity and research absorbed every other faculty; Eleanor might be mouldering back to the parent earth—I could not stay to meditate on such a possibility; my Uncle Paul’s donation might enrich itself with gold-dust instead of the gathered dust of idle days—it was nothing to me. I had but one thonght, one ambition, one desire in those days—the discovery of the clear seas and open passage. I endured all our hardships as if they had been luxuries: I made light of scurvy, banqueted off train-oil, and met that cold for which there is no language framed, and which might be a new element; or which, rather, had seemed in that long night like the vast void of ether beyond the uttermost star, where was neither air nor light nor heat, but only bitter negation and emptiness. I was hardly conscious of my body; I was only a concentrated search in myself.
The recent explorers had aunounced here, in the neighborhood of where our third summer at last found us, the existence of an immense space of clear water. One even declared that he had seen it.
My Uncle Paul had pronounced the declaration false, and the sight an impossibility. The North he believed to be the breeder of icebergs, an ever-welling fountain of cold; the great glaciers there forever form, forever fall; the ice-packs line the gorges from year to year unchanging; peaks of volcanic rock drop their frozen mantles like a scale only to display the fresher one beneath. Tho whole region, said he, is Plutonic^ blasted by a primordial convulsion of the great forces of creation; and thongh it may be a few miles nearer to the central fires of the earth, allowing that there are such things, yet that would not in itself detract from the frigid power of its sunless solitudes, the more especially when it is remembered that the spinning of the earth, while in its first plastic material, which gave it greater circumference and thinness of shell at its equator, must have thickened the shell correspondingly at the poles; and the character of all the waste and wilderness there only signifies the impenetrable wall between its surface and centre, throngh which wall no heat could enter or escape. The great rivers, like tho White and the Mackeuzie, emptying to the north of the continents, so far from being enongh in themselves to form any body of ever fresh and flowing water, can only pierce the opposing ice-fields in narrow streams and bays and inlets as they seek the Atlantic and the Pacific seas. And as for the theory of the currents of water heated in the tropies and carried by the rotary motion of the planet to the Pole, where they rise and melt the ice-floes into this great supposititious sea, it is simply an absurdity on the face of it, he argued, when you remember that warm water being in its nature specifically lighter than cold it would have risen to the surface long before it reached there. No, thonght my Uncle Paul, who took nothing for granted; it is as I said, an absurdity on the face of it; my nephew shall prove it, and I stake half the earnings of my life upon it.
To tell the truth, I thonght much the same as he did; and now that such a mere trifle of distance intervened between me and the proof, I was full of a feverish impatience that almost amounted to insanity.
We had proceeded but a few days, coasting the crushing capes of rock that every where seemed to run out in a diablerie of tusks and horns to drive us from the region that they warded, now cruising throngh a runlet of blue water just wide enongh for our keel, with silver reaches of frost stretching away into a ghastly horizon—now plunging upon tossing seas, tho sun wheeling round and round, and never sinkVol. XXXVII.—No. 221.—Tt
ing from the strange, weird sky above us, when again to our look-out a glimmer in the low horizon told its awful tale—a sort of smoky lustre like that which might ascend from an army of spirits—the fierce and fatal spirits tented on the terrible field of the ice-floe.
We were alone, our single little ship speeding ever upward in the midst of that untraveled desolation. We spoke seldom to one another, oppressed with the sense of our situation. It was a loneliness that seemed more than a death in life, a solitude that was supernatural. Here and now it was clear water; ten hours later and we wero canght in the teeth of the cold, wedged in the ice that had advanced upon us and surrounded us, fettered by another winter in latitudes where human life had never before been supported.
Wo found, before the hands of the dial had tanght us the lapse of a week, that this would be something not to be endured. The sun sank lower every day behind the crags and silvery horns; tho heavens grew to wear a hue of violet, almost black, and yet unbearably dazzling; as tho notes of our voices fell upon the atmosphere they assumed a metallic tone, as if the air itself had become frozen from the begiuning of the world and they tinkled against it; our sufferings had mounted in their intensity till they were too great to be resisted.
It was decided at length—when the one long day had given place to its answering night, and in the jet-black heavens the stars, like knobs of silver, sparkled so large and close upon us that we might have grasped them in our hands— that I should take a sledge with Glipuu and his dogs, and see if there were any path to the westward by which, if the Albatross were forsaken, those of her crew that remained might follow it, and find an escape to safety. Our path was on a frozen sea; if we discovered land we did not know that the foot of man had ever trodden it; we could hope to find no cacht of snow-buried food — neither fish nor game lived in this desert of ice that was so devoid of life in any shape as to seem dead itself. But, well provisioned, furred to the eyes, and essaying to nurse some hopefulness of heart, we set out on our ‘way throngh this Valley of Death, relieving one another, and traveling day and night.
Still night and day to the west rose the black coast, one interminable height; to the east extended the sheets of unbroken ice; sometimes a hnge glacier hung pendulous from the precipice; once wo saw, by the starlight, a white, foaming, rushing river arrested and transformed to ice in its flight down that steep. A south wind began to blow behind us; we traveled on the ice; three days, perhaps, as days are measured among men, had passed, when we found that we made double progress, for the ice traveled too; the whole field, carried by some northward-bearing current, was afloat; it began to be crossed and cut by a thousand crevasses; the cakes, an acre each, tilted up and down, and made wide waves with their ponderous plashing in the black body of the sea; we could hear them grinding distantly in the clear dark against the coast, against each other. There was no retreat—there was no advance; we were on the ice, and the ice was breaking up. Suddenly we rounded a tongue of the primeval rock, and recoiled before a narrow gulf—one sharp shadow, as deep as despair, as full of aguish fears. It was just wide enongh for the sledge to span. Glipnu made the dogs leap; we could be no worse off if they drowned. They touched the opposite block; it careened; it went under; the sledge went with it; I was left alone where I had stood. Two dogs broke loose, and scrambled up beside me; Glipuu and the others I never saw again. I sank upon the ice; the dogs crouched beside me; sometimes I think they saved my brain from total ruin, for without them I could not have withstood the enormity of that loneliness, a loneliness that it was impossible should be broken—floating on and on with that vast journeying company of spectral ice. I had food enongh to support life for several days to come, in the pouch at my belt; the dogs and I shared it—for, last as long as it would, when it should be gone there was only death before us—no reprieve—sooner or later that; as well sooner as later—the living terrors of this icy hell were all about us, and death could be no worse.
Still the south wind blew, the rapid current carried us, the dark skies grew deep and darker, the lanes and avenues between the stars were crowded with forebodings — for the air seemed full of a new power, a strange and invisible influence, as if a king of unknown terrors here held his awful state. Sometimes the dogs stood up and growled and bristled their shaggy hides; I, prostrate on the ice, in all my frame was stung with a universal tingle. I was no longer myself. At this moment my blood seemed to sing and bubble in my veins; I grew giddy with a sort of delirious and inexplicable eestasy; with another moment unutterable horror seized me; I was plunged and weighed down with a black and suffocating load, while evil things seemed to flap their wings in my face, to breathe in my mouth, to draw my soul out of my body and carry it careering throngh the frozen realm of that murky heaven, to restore it with a shock of agony. Once as I lay there, still floating, floating northward, out of the dim dark rim of the water-world, a lance of piercing light shot up the zenith; it divided the heavens like a knife; they opened out in one blaze, and the fire fell sheetingly down before my face—cold fire, curdingly cold—light robbed of heat, and set free in a preternatural anarchy of the elements; its fringes swung to and fro before my face, pricked it with flaming spicule, dissolving in a thousand colors that spread even’ where over the low field, flashing, flickering, creeping, reflecting, gathering again in one long serpentine line of glory that wavered in
‘slow convolutions across the cuts and crevasses of the ice, wreathed ever nearer, and, lifting its head at last, became nothing in the darkness hut two great eyes like glowing coals, with which it stared me to a stound, till I threw myself fave down to hide me in the ice; and the whining, bristling dogs cowered backwurd, and were dead.
I should have supposed myself to be in the region of the magnetic pole of the sphere, if I did not know that I had long since left it behind me. My pocket-compass had become entirely useless, and every scrap of metal that I had about me had become a loadstone. The very ice, as if it were congealed from water that held large quantities of iron in solution; iron escaping from whatever solid land there was beneath or around, the Plutonic rock that such a region could have alone veined and seamed with metal. The very ice appeared to have a magnetic quality; it held me so that I changed my position upon it with difficulty, and, as if it established a battery by the aid of the singular atmosphere above it, frequently sent thrills quivering throngh and through me till my flesh seemed about to resolve into all the jarring atoms of its original constitution; and again soothed me, with a velvet touch, into a state which, if it were not sleep, was at least haunted by visions that I dare not believe to have been realities, and from which I always awoke with a start to find myself still floating, floating. My watch had long since ceased to beat. I felt an odd persuasion that I had died when that stood still, and only this slavery of the magnet, of the cold, this power that locked every thing in invisible fetters and let nothing loose again, held my soul still in the bonds of my body. Another idea, also, took possession of me, for my mind was open to whatever visitant chose to enter, since utter despair of safety or release had left it vacant of a hope or fear. These enormous days and nights, swinging in their arc six months long, were the pendulum that dealt time in another measure than that dealt by the sunlight of lower zones; they told the time of what interminable years, the years of what vast generations far beyond the span that covered the ago of the primeval men of Scripture—they measured time on this gigantic and enduring scale for what wonderful and mighty beings, old as the everlasting hills,»» destitute as they of mortal sympathy, cold and inscrutable, handling the two-edged javelins of frost and magnetism, and served by all the unknown polar agencies. I fancied that I saw their far-reuching cohorts, marshaling and manoenvring at times in the field of an horizon that was boundless, the glitter of their spears and casques, the sheen of their white banners; and again, sitting in fearful circle with their phantasmagoria they shut and hemmed me in and watched me writhe like a worm before them.
I had a fancy that the perpetual play °* magnetic impulses here gradually disintegrated the expanse of ice, as sunbeams might have done. If it succeeded in unseating me from my cold station I should drown, and there would be an end of me; it would be all one; for though I clung to life I did not cling to suffering. Somethmg of the wild beast seemed to spring up in my nature; that ignorance of any moment but the present. I felt a certain kinship to the bear in her comfortable snowinesswhom I had left in the parallels far below this uureal tract of horrors. I remembered traditions of such metempsychoses; the thought gave me a pang that none of these fierce and subtle elements had known how to give before. But all the time my groaning, cracking ice was moving with me, splitting now through all its leagues of length along the darkness, with an explosion like a cannon’s shot, that echoed again and again in every gap and chasm of its depth, and seemed to be caught up and repeated by a thousand airy sprites, and snatched on from one to another till it fell dead through the frozen thickness of the air.
It was at about this time that I noticed another species of motion than that which had hitherto governed it seizing this journeying ice. It bent and bent, as a glacier does in its viscous flow between mountains; it crowded, and loosened, and rent apart, and at last it broke in every direction, and every fragment was crushed and jammed together again; and the whole mass was following, as I divined, the curve of some enormous whirlpool that swept it from beneath. It might have been a day and night, it might have been an hour, that we traveled on this vast curve—I had no more means of knowing than if I had veritably done with time. We were one expanse of shadow; not a star above us, only a sky of impenetrable gloom received the shimmering that now and again the circling ice cast off. It was a strange slow motion, yet with such a steadiness and strength about it that it had the effect of swiftness. It was long since any water, or the suspicion of any, had been visible; we might have been grinding through some gigantic hollow for all I could have told; snow had never fallen here; the mass moved you knew as if you felt the prodigious hand that grasped and impelled it tVom beneath. Whither was it tending, in the eddy of what huge stream that went, with the smoke of its fall hovering on the brink, to plunge a tremendous cataract over the limits of the earth into the unknown abyss of space? Far in advance there was a faint glimmering, a sort of powdery light glancing here and there. As we approached it—the ice and I—it grew fainter, and was, by-and-by, lost in a vast twilight that surrounded us on all sides; at the same time it became evident that we had passed under a roof, an immense and vaulted roof. As crowding, stretching, rending, we passed on, uncanny gleams were playing distantly above ns and around us, now and then overlaying all things with a sheeted illumination as deathly as a grave-light, now and then shoot
ing up in spires of blood-red radiance that disclosed the terrible aurora. I was in a cavern of ice, as wide and as high as the heavens; these flashes of glory, alternated with equal flashes of darkness, as you might say, taught me to perceive. Perhaps tremendous tide after tide had hollowed it with all its fantastic recesses; or had that Titanic race of the interminable years built it as a palace for their monarch, a temple for their deity, with its domes that sprung far up immeasurable heights and hung palely shining like mock heavens of hazy stars; its aisles that stretched away down colonnades of crystal columns into unguessed darkness; its high-heaved arches, its pierced and open sides? Now an aurora burned up like a blue-light, and went skimming under all the vaults far off into far and farther hollows, revealing, as it went, still loftier heights and colder answering radiances. Then these great arches glowed like blocks of beryl. Wondrous tracery of delicate vines and leaves, greener than the greenest moss, wandered over them, wreathed the great pillars, and spread round them in capitals of flowers; roses crimson as a carbuncle; hyacinths like bedded cubes of amethyst; violets bluer than sapphires—all as if the flowers had been turned to flame, yet all so cruelly cold, as if the power that wrought such wonders could simulate a sparkle beyond even the lustre of light, but could not give it heat, that principle of life, that fountain of first being. Yonder a stalactite of clustered ruby—that kept the aurora and glinted faintly, and more faintly, till the thing came aguin, when it grasped a whole body-full of splendor—hung downward and dropped a thread-like stem and a blossom of palest pink, like a transfigured Linna;a, to meet the snow-drop in its sheath of green that shot up from a spire of aqua marine below. Here living rainbows flew from buttress to buttress and frolicked in the domes—the only things that dared to live and sport where beauty was frozen into horror. It seemed as if that shifting death-light of the aurora photographed all these things upon my memory, for I noted none of them at the time. I only wondered idly whither we were tending as we drove in deeper and deeper under that ice-roof, and curved more and more circlingly upon our course while the silent flashes sped on overhead. Now we were in the dark again crashing onward: now a cold blue radiance burst from every icicle, from every crevice, and I saw that the whole enormous mass of our motion bent and swept around a single point—a dark yet glittering form that sat as if upon the apex of the world. Was it one of those mightier than the Anakim, more than the sons of God, to whom all the currents of this frozen world converged? Sooth I know not—for presently I imagined that my vision made only an exaggeration of some brown Esquimaux sealed up and left in his snow-house to die. A thin sheathing of ice appeared to clothe him and give the glister to his duskiness. Insensible as I had thought
myself to any further fear, I cowered beneath the stare of those dead and icy eyes. Slowly we rounded, and ever rounded; the inside, on which my place was, moving less slowly than the outer circle of the sheeted mass in its viscid flow; and as we moved, by some fate my eye was caught by the substance on which this figure sat. It was no figure at all now, but a bare jag of rock rising in the centre of this solid whirlpool, and carrying on its summit something which held a light that not one of these icy freaks, pranking in the dress of gems and flowers, had found it possible to assume. It was a thing so real, so genuine, my breath became suspended; my heart ceased to beat; my brain, that had been a lump of ice, seemed to move in its skull; hope, that had deserted me, suddenly sprung up like a second life within me; the old passion was not dead, if I was. It rose stronger than life or death or than myself. If I could but snatch that mass of moonstone, that inestimable wealth! It was nothing deceptive, I declared to myself. What more natural home could it have than this region, thrown up here by the old Plutonic powers of the planet, as the same substance in smaller shape was thrown up on the peaks of the Mount St. Gothard, when the Alpine aiguilles first sprang into the day? There it rested, limpid with its milky pearl, casting out flakes of flame and azure, of red and leaf-green light, and holding yet a sparkle of silver in the reflections and refractions of its inner axis— the splendid Turk’s-eyo of the lapidaries, the cousin of the water-opal and the girasole, the precious essence of feldspar. Could I break it, I would find clusters of great hemitrope crystals. Could I obtain it, I should have a jewel in that mass of moonstone such as the world never saw! The throne of Jemschid could not cast a shadow beside it.
Then the bitterness of my fate overwhelmed me. Here, with this treasure of a kingdom, this jewel that could not be priced, this wealth beyond an Emperor’s—and here only to die! My stolid apathy vanished, old thoughts dominated once more, old habits, old desires. I thought of Eleanor then in her warm, sunny home, the blossoms that bloomed around her, the birds that sang, the cheerful evening fires, the longing thoughts for one who never came, who never was to come. But I would! I cried, where human voice had never cried before. I would return! I would take this treasure with me! I would not be defrauded! Should not I, a man, conquer this inanimate blind matter? I reached out my hands to seize it. Slowly it receded—slowly, and less slowly; or was the motion of the ice still carrying me onward? Had we encircled this apex? and were we driving out into the open and uncovered North, and so down the seas and out to the open main of black water again? If so — if I could live through it—I must have this thing!
I rose, and as well as I could, with my cramped and stiffened limbs, I moved to go back for it.
It was useless; the current that carried us was growing invincible, the gaping gulfs of the outer seas were sucking us toward them. I fell; I scrambled to my feet; I would still have gone back, but, as I attempted it, the ice whereon I was inclined over so slightly, tipped more boldly, gave way, and rose in a billow, broke, and piled over on another mass beneath. Then the cavern was behind us, and I comprehended that this ice-stream, having doubled its central point, now in its outward movement encountered the still incoming body, and was to pile above and pass over it, the whole expanse bending, cracking, breaking, crowding, and compressing, till its rearing tumult made bergs more mountainous than the offshot glaciers of the Greenland continent, that should ride safely down to crumble in the surging seas below. As block after block of the rent ice rose in the air, lighted by the blue and bristling aurora-points, toppled and mounted higher, it seemed to me that now indeed I was battling with those elemental agencies in the dreadful fight I had desired—one man against the might ofsmattcr. I sprang from that block to another; I gained my balance on a third, climbing, shouldering, leaping, struggling, holding with my hands, catching with my feet, crawling, stumbling, tottering, rising high and higher with the mountain ever making underneath; a power unknown to my foes coming to my aid, a blessed rushing warmth that glowed on all the surface of my skin, that set the blood to racing iu my veins, that made my heart beat with newer hope, sink with newer despair, rise buoyant with new determination. Except when the shaft of light pierced the shivering sky I could not see or guess, the height that I had gained. I was vaguely aware of chasms that were bottomless, of precipices that opened on them, of pinnacles rising round me in aerial spires, when suddenly the shelf, on which I must have stood, yielded, as if it were pushed by great hands, swept down a steep iucline like an avalanche, stopped halfway, but sent me flying on, sliding, glancing, like a shooting-star, down, down the slippery side, breathless, dizzy, smitten with blistering pain by awful winds that whistled by me, far out upon the level ice below that tilted up and down again with the great resonant plash of open water, and conscious for n moment that I lay at last upon a fragment that the mass behind urged on, I knew and I remembered nothing more.
Faces were bending over me when I opened my eyes again, rough, uncouth, and bearded faces, but no monsters of the pole. Whalemen rather, smelling richly of train-oil, but I could recall nothing in all my life one fraction so beautiful as they; the angels on whom I hope to open my eyes when Death has really taken me will scarcely seem sights more blest than did I those rude whalers of the North Pacific Sea. The North Pacific Sea—for it was there that I was found, explain it how you may—whether the Albatross had pierced farther to the west than her sailing-master knew, and had lost her reckoning with a disordered compass-needle under new stars—or whether I had really been the sport of the demoniac beings of the ice, tossed by them from zone to zone in a dozen hours. The whalers, real creatures enough, had discovered me on a block of ice, they said; nor could I, in their opinion, have been mamdays undergoing my dreadful experience, for there was still food in my wallet when they opened it. They would never believe a word of my story, and so far from regarding me as one who had proved the Northwest Passage in my own person, they considered me a mere idle maniac, as uncomfortable a thing to have on shipboard as a ghost or a dead body, wrecked and unable to account for myself, and gladly transferred me to a homeward-bound Russian man-of-war, whose officers afforded me more polite but quite as decided skepticism. I have never to this day found any one who believed my story when I told it—so you can take it for what it is worth. Even my Uncle Paul flouted it, and absolutely refused to surrender the sum on whose expectation I had taken ship; while my old ancestor, who hung peeling over the hall fire, dropped from his frame in disgust at the idea of one of his hard-cash descendants turning romancer. But all I know is that the A Ibatross never sailed into port again, and that if I open my knife to-day and lay it on the table it will wheel about till the tip of its blade points full at the North Star.
I have never found any one to believe me, did I say? Yes, there is one—Eleanor never doubted a word of my narration, never asked me if cold and suffering had not shaken my reason. But then, after the first recital, she has never been willing to hear another word about it, and if I ever allude to my lost treasure or the possibility of instituting search for it, she asks me if I need more lessons to be content with the treasure that I have, and gathers up her work and gently leaves the room. So that, now I speak of it so seldom, if I had not told the thing to you it might come to pass that I should forget altogether the existence of my mass of moonstone. My mass of moonshine, old Paul calls it. I let him have his say; he can not have that nor any thing else much longer; but when all is done I recall Galileo and I mutter to myself, “Per si muove—it was a mass of moonstone! With these eyes I saw it, with these hands I touched it, with this heart I longed for it, with this will I mean to have it yet!”