Dinner was over, and the salon deserted by all but the two young ladies, who sat apart, apparently absorbed in novels, while each was privately longing for somebody to come, and with the charming inconsistency of the fair sex, planning to fly if certain somebodies did appear.
Steps approached; both buried themselves in their books; both held their breath and felt their hearts flutter as they never had done before at the step of mortal man. The door opened; neither looked up, yet each was conscious of mingled disappointment and relief when the major said, in a grave tone, "Girls, I've something to tell you."
"We know what it is, sir," returned Helen, coolly.
"I beg your pardon, but you don't, my dear, as I will prove in five minutes, if you will give me your attention."
The major looked as if braced up to some momentous undertaking; and planting himself before the two young ladies, dashed bravely into the subject.
"Girls, I've played a bold game, but I've won it, and will take the consequences."
"They will fall heaviest on you, uncle," said Helen, thinking he was about to declare his love for the widow.
The major laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and answered, stoutly,--
"I'll bear them; but you are quite wrong, my dear, in your surmises, as you will soon see. Helen is my ward, and accountable to me alone. Amy's mother gave her into my charge, and won't reproach me for anything that has passed when I explain matters. As to the lads they must take care of themselves."
Suddenly both girls colored, fluttered, and became intensely interested. The major's eyes twinkled as he assumed a perfectly impassive expression, and rapidly delivered himself of the following thunderbolt,--
"Girls, you have been deceived, and the young men you love are impostors."
"I thought so," muttered Helen, grimly.
"Oh, uncle, don't, don't say that!" cried Amy, despairingly.
"It's true, my dears; and the worst of it is, I knew the truth all the time. Now, don't have hysterics, but listen and enjoy the joke as I do. At Coblentz, when you sat in the balcony, two young men overheard Amy sigh for adventures, and Helen advise making a romance out of the gloves one of the lads had dropped. They had seen you by day; both admired you, and being idle, gay young fellows, they resolved to devote their vacation to gratifying your wishes and enjoying themselves. We met at the Fortress; I knew one of them, and liked the other immensely; so when they confided their scheme to me I agreed to help them carry it out, as I had perfect confidence in both, and thought a little adventure or two would do you good."
"Uncle, you were mad," said Helen; and Amy added, tragically,--
"You don't know what trouble has come of it."
"Perhaps I was; that remains to be proved. I do know everything, and fail to see any trouble, so don't cry, little girl," briskly replied the inexplicable major. "Well, we had a merry time planning our prank. One of the lads insisted on playing courier, though I objected. He'd done it before, liked the part, and would have his way. The other couldn't decide, being younger and more in love; so we left him to come into the comedy when he was ready. Karl did capitally, as you will allow; and I am much attached to him, for in all respects he has been true to his word. He began at Coblentz; the other, after doing the mysterious at Heidelberg, appeared as an exile, and made quick work with the prejudices of my well-beloved nieces--hey, Amy?"
"Go on; who are they?" cried both girls, breathlessly.
"Wait a bit; I'm not bound to expose the poor fellows to your scorn and anger. No; if you are going to be high and haughty, to forget their love, refuse to forgive their frolic, and rend their hearts with reproaches, better let them remain unknown."
"No, no; we will forget and forgive, only speak!" was the command of both.
"You promise to be lenient and mild, to let them confess their motives, and to award a gentle penance for their sins?"
"Yes, we promise!"
"Then, come in, my lads, and plead for your lives."
As he spoke the major threw open the door, and two gentlemen entered the room--one, slight and dark, with brilliant black eyes; the other tall and large, with blond hair and beard. Angry, bewildered, and shame-stricken as they were, feminine curiosity overpowered all other feelings for the moment, and the girls sat looking at the culprits with eager eyes, full of instant recognition; for though the disguise was off, and neither had seen them in their true characters but once, they felt no doubt, and involuntarily exclaimed,--
"No, young ladies; the courier and exile are defunct, and from their ashes rise Baron Sigismund Palsdorf, my friend, and Sidney Power, my nephew. I give you one hour to settle the matter; then I shall return to bestow my blessing or to banish these scapegraces forever."
And, having fired his last shot, the major prudently retreated, without waiting to see its effect.
It was tremendous, for it carried confusion into the fair enemy's camp; and gave the besiegers a momentary advantage of which they were not slow to avail themselves.
For a moment the four remained mute and motionless: then Amy, like all timid things, took refuge in flight, and Sidney followed her into the garden, glad to see the allies separated. Helen, with the courage of her nature, tried to face and repulse the foe; but love was stronger than pride, maiden shame overcame anger, and, finding it vain to meet and bear down the steady, tender glance of the blue eyes fixed upon her, she dropped her head into her hands and sat before him, like one conquered but too proud to cry "Quarter." Her lover watched her till she hid her face, then drew near, knelt down before her, and said, with an undertone of deep feeling below the mirthful malice of his words,--
"Mademoiselle, pardon me that I am a foolish baron, and dare to offer you the title that you hate. I have served you faithfully for a month, and, presumptuous as it is, I ask to be allowed to serve you all my life. Helen, say you forgive the deceit for love's sake."
"No; you are false and forsworn. How can I believe that anything is true?"
And Helen drew away the hand of which he had taken possession.
"Heart's dearest, you trusted me in spite of my disguise; trust me still, and I will prove that I am neither false nor forsworn. Catechise me, and see if I was not true in spite of all my seeming deception."
"You said your name was Karl Hoffman," began Helen, glad to gain a little time to calm herself before the momentous question came.
"It is; I have many, and my family choose to call me Sigismund," was the laughing answer.
"I'll never call you so; you shall be Karl, the courier, all your life to me," cried Helen, still unable to meet the ardent eyes before her.
"Good; I like that well; for it assures me that all my life I shall be something to you, my heart. What next?"
"When I asked if you were the baron, you denied it."
"Pardon! I simply said my name was Hoffman. You did not ask me point blank if I was the baron; had you done so, I think I should have confessed all, for it was very hard to restrain myself this morning."
"No, not yet; I have more questions;" and Helen warned him away, as it became evident that he no longer considered restraint necessary.
"Who is Ludmilla?" she said, sharply.
"My faith, that is superb!" exclaimed the baron, with a triumphant smile at her betrayal of jealousy. "How if she is a former love?" he asked, with a sly look at her changing face.
"It would cause me no surprise; I am prepared for anything."
"How if she is my dearest sister, for whom I sent, that she might welcome you and bring the greetings of my parents to their new daughter?"
"Is it, indeed, so?"
And Helen's eyes dimmed as the thought of parents, home and love filled her heart with tenderest gratitude, for she had long been an orphan.
"Leibchen, it is true; to-morrow you shall see how dear you already are to them, for I write often and they wait eagerly to receive you."
Helen felt herself going very fast, and made an effort to harden her heart, lest too easy victory should reward this audacious lover.
"I may not go; I also have friends, and in England we are not won in this wild way. I will yet prove you false; it will console me for being so duped if I can call you traitor. You said Casimer had fought in Poland."
"Crudest of women, he did, but under his own name, Sidney Power."
"Then, he was not the brave Stanislas?--and there is no charming Casimer?"
"Yes, there are both,--his and my friends, in Paris; true Poles, and when we go there you shall see them."
"But his illness was a ruse?"
"No; he was wounded in the war and has been ill since. Not of a fatal malady, I own; his cough misled you, and he has no scruples in fabling to any extent. I am not to bear the burden of his sins."
"Then, the romances he told us about your charity, your virtues, and--your love of liberty were false?" said Helen, with a keen glance, for these tales had done much to interest her in the unknown baron.
Sudden color rose to his forehead, and for the first time his eyes fell before hers,--not in shame, but with a modest man's annoyance at hearing himself praised.
"Sidney is enthusiastic in his friendship, and speaks too well for me. The facts are true, but he doubtless glorified the simplest by his way of telling it. Will you forgive my follies, and believe me when I promise to play and duel no more?"
She yielded her hand now, and her eyes were full of happiness, yet she added, wistfully,--
"And the betrothed, your cousin, Minna,--is she, in truth, not dear to you?"
"Very dear, but less so than another; for I could not learn of her in years what I learned in a day when I met you. Helen, this was begun in jest,--it ends in solemn earnest, for I love my liberty, and I have lost it, utterly and forever. Yet I am glad; look in my face and tell me you believe it."
He spoke now as seriously as fervently, and with no shadow on her own, Helen brushed back the blond hair and looked into her lover's face. Truth, tenderness, power, and candor were written there in characters that could not lie; and with her heart upon her lips, she answered, as he drew her close,--
"I do believe, do love you, Sigismund!" Meanwhile another scene was passing in the garden. Sidney, presuming upon his cousinship, took possession of Amy, bidding her "strike but hear him." Of course she listened with the usual accompaniment of tears and smiles, reproaches and exclamations, varied by cruel exultations and coquettish commands to go away and never dare approach her again.
"Ma drogha, listen and be appeased. Years ago you and I played together as babies, and our fond mammas vowed we should one day mate. When I was a youth of fourteen and you a mite of seven I went away to India with my father, and at our parting promised to come back and marry you. Being in a fret because you couldn't go also, you haughtily declined the honor, and when I offered a farewell kiss, struck me with this very little hand. Do you remember it?"
"Not I. Too young for such nonsense."
"I do, and I also remember that in my boyish way I resolved to keep my word sooner or later, and I've done it."
"We shall see, sir," cried Amy, strongly tempted to repeat her part of the childish scene as well as her cousin, but her hand was not free, and he got the kiss without the blow.
"For eleven years we never met. You forgot me, and 'Cousin Sidney' remained an empty name. I was in India till four years ago; since then I've been flying about Germany and fighting in Poland, where I nearly got my quietus."
"My dear boy, were you wounded?"
"Bless you, yes; and very proud of it I am. I'll show you my scars some day; but never mind that now. A while ago I went to England, seized with a sudden desire to find my wife."
"I admire your patience in waiting; so flattering to me, you know," was the sharp answer.
"It looks like neglect, I confess; but I'd heard reports of your flirtations, and twice of your being engaged, so I kept away till my work was done. Was it true?"
"I never flirt, Sidney, and I was only engaged a little bit once or twice. I didn't like it, and never mean to do so any more."
"I shall see that you don't flirt; but you are very much engaged now, so put on your ring and make no romances about any 'S.P.' but myself."
"I shall wait till you clear your character; I'm not going to care for a deceitful impostor. What made you think of this prank?"
"When in England I saw your picture, though you were many a mile away, and fell in love with it. Your mother told me much about you, and I saw she would not frown upon my suit. I begged her not to tell you I had come, but let me find you and make myself known when I liked. You were in Switzerland, and I went after you. At Coblentz I met Sigismund, and told him my case; he is full of romance, and when we overheard you in the balcony we were glad of the hint. Sigismund was with me when you came, and admired Helen immensely, so he was wild to have a part in the frolic. I let him begin, and followed you unseen to Heidelberg, meaning to personate an artist. Meeting you at the castle, I made a good beginning with the vaults and the ring, and meant to follow it up by acting the baron, you were so bent on finding him, but Sigismund forbade it. Turning over a trunk of things left there the year before, I came upon my old Polish uniform, and decided to be a Thaddeus."
"How well you did it! Wasn't it hard to act all the time?" asked Amy, wonderingly.
"Very hard with Helen, she is so keen, but not a bit so with you, for you are such a confiding soul any one could cheat you. I've betrayed myself a dozen times, and you never saw it. Ah, it was capital fun to play the forlorn exile, study English, and flirt with my cousin."
"It was very base. I should think you'd be devoured with remorse. Aren't you sorry?"
"For one thing. I cropped my head lest you should know me. I was proud of my curls, but I sacrificed them all to you."
"Peacock! Did you think that one glimpse of your black eyes and fine hair would make such an impression that I should recognize you again?"
"I did, and for that reason disfigured my head, put on a mustache, and assumed hideous spectacles. Did you never suspect my disguise, Amy?"
"No. Helen used to say that she felt something was wrong, but I never did till the other night."
"Didn't I do that well? I give you my word it was all done on the spur of the minute. I meant to speak soon, but had not decided how, when you came out so sweetly with that confounded old cloak, of which I'd no more need than an African has of a blanket. Then a scene I'd read in a novel came into my head, and I just repeated it con amore. Was I very pathetic and tragical. Amy?"
"I thought so then. It strikes me as ridiculous now, and I can't help feeling sorry that I wasted so much pity on a man who--"
"Loves you with all his heart and soul. Did you cry and grieve over me, dear little tender thing? and do you think now that I am a heartless fellow, bent only on amusing myself at the expense of others? It's not so; and you shall see how true and good and steady I can be when I have any one to love and care for me. I've been alone so long it's new and beautiful to be petted, confided in, and looked up to by an angel like you."
He was in earnest now; she felt it, and her anger melted away like dew before the sun.
"Poor boy! You will go home with us now, and let us take care of you in quiet England. You'll play no more pranks, but go soberly to work and do something that shall make me proud to be your cousin, won't you?"
"If you'll change 'cousin' to 'wife' I'll be and do whatever you please. Amy, when I was a poor, dying, Catholic foreigner you loved me and would have married me in spite of everything. Now that I'm your well, rich, Protestant cousin, who adores you as that Pole never could, you turn cold and cruel. Is it because the romance is gone, or because your love was only a girl's fancy, after all?"
"You deceived me and I can't forget it; but I'll try," was the soft answer to his reproaches.
"Are you disappointed that I'm not a baron?"
"A little bit."
"Shall I be a count? They gave me a title in Poland, a barren honor, but all they had to offer, poor souls, in return for a little blood. Will you be Countess Zytomar and get laughed at for your pains, or plain Mrs. Power, with a good old English name?"
"Neither, thank you; it's only a girlish fancy, which will soon be forgotten. Does the baron love Helen?" asked Amy, abruptly.
"Desperately, and she?"
"I think he will be happy; she is not one to make confidantes, but I know by her tenderness with me, her sadness lately, and something in her way of brightening when he comes, that she thinks much of him and loves Karl Hoffman. How it will be with the baron I cannot say."
"No fear of him; he wins his way everywhere. I wish I were as fortunate;" and the gay young gentleman heaved an artful sigh and coughed the cough that always brought such pity to the girl's soft eyes.
She glanced at him as he leaned pensively on the low wall, looking down into the lake, with the level rays of sunshine on his comely face and figure. Something softer than pity stole into her eye, as she said, anxiously,--
"You are not really ill, Sidney?"
"I have been, and still need care, else I may have a relapse," was the reply of this treacherous youth, whose constitution was as sound as a bell.
Amy clasped her hands, as if in a transport of gratitude, exclaiming, fervently,--
"What a relief it is to know that you are not doomed to--"
She paused with a shiver, as if the word were too hard to utter, and Sidney turned to her with a beaming face, which changed to one of mingled pain and anger, as she added, with a wicked glance,--
"Amy, you've got no heart!" he cried, in a tone that banished her last doubt of his love and made her whisper tenderly, as she clung to his arm,--
"No, dear; I've given it all to you."
Punctual to the minute, Major Erskine marched into the salon, with Mrs. Cumberland on his arm, exclaiming, as he eyed the four young people together again,--
"Now, ladies, is it to be 'Paradise Lost' or 'Regained' for the prisoners at the bar?"
At this point the astonished gentleman found himself taken possession of by four excited individuals, for the girls embraced and kissed him, the young men wrung his hand and thanked him, and all seemed bent on assuring him that they were intensely happy, grateful and affectionate.
From this assault he emerged flushed and breathless, but beaming with satisfaction, and saying paternally,--
"Bless you, my children, bless you. I hoped and worked for this, and to prove how well I practise what I preach, let me present to you--my wife."
As he drew forward the plump widow with a face full of smiles and tears, a second rush was made, and congratulations, salutes, exclamations and embraces were indulged in to every one's satisfaction.
As the excitement subsided the major said, simply,--
"We were married yesterday at Montreaux. Let me hope that you will prove as faithful as I have been, as happy as I am, as blest as I shall be. I loved this lady in my youth, have waited many years, and am rewarded at last, for love never comes too late."
The falter in his cheery voice, the dimness of his eyes, the smile on his lips, and the gesture with which he returned the pressure of the hand upon his arm, told the little romance of the good major's life more eloquently than pages of fine writing, and touched the hearts of those who loved him.
"I have been faithful for eleven years. Give me my reward soon, won't you, dear?" whispered Sidney.
"Don't marry me to-morrow, and if mamma is willing I'll think about it by and by," answered Amy.
"It is beautiful! let us go and do likewise," said Sigismund to his betrothed.
But Helen, anxious to turn the thoughts of all from emotions too deep for words, drew from her pocket a small pearl-colored object, which she gave to Amy with mock solemnity, as she said, turning to lay her hand again in her lover's,--
"Amy, our search is over. You may keep the gloves; I have the baron."