"Another gift for you, Sylvia. I don't know the writing, but it smells like flowers," said Mark, as a smiling maid brought in a package on Christmas morning.
Sylvia tore off the wrapper, lifted a cover, and exclaimed with pleasure, though it was the simplest present she had received that day. Only an osier basket, graceful in design and shape, lined with moss, and filled with holly sprays, the scarlet berries glowing beautifully among the polished green. No note, no card, no hint of its donor anywhere appeared, for none of them recognized the boldly written address. Presently a thought came to Sylvia; in a moment the mystery seemed to grow delightfully clear, and she said to herself with a glow of joy, "This is so like Adam I know he sent it."
"I must say it is the most peculiar present I ever saw, and it is my belief that the boy who brought it stole whatever article of value it contained, for it was very carelessly done up. No person in their senses would send a few sprigs of common holly to a young lady in this odd way," said Prue, poking here and there in hopes of finding some clue.
"It is not common, but very beautiful; we seldom see any so large and green, and full of berries. Nor is it odd, but very kind, because from the worn look of the wrapper I know it has been sent a long way to please me. Look at the little ferns in the moss, and smell the sweet moist odor that seems to take us into summer woods in spite of a snowstorm. Ah, he knew what I should like."
"Who knew?" asked Mark, quickly.
"You must guess." And fearing that she had betrayed herself, Sylvia hurried across the room to put the holly in water.
"Ah, ha, I see," said Mark, laughing.
"Who is it?" asked Prue, looking mystified.
"Geoffrey," whispered Mr. Yule, with an air of satisfaction.
Then all three looked at one another, all three nodded sagely, and all three glanced at the small person bending over the table with cheeks almost as rosy as the berries in her hand.
Every one knows what a Christmas party is when a general friendliness pervades the air, and good wishes fly about like _confetti_ during Carnival. To such an one went Sylvia and Mark that night, the brother looking unusually blithe and debonair, because the beloved Jessie had promised to be there if certain aunts and uncles would go away in time; the sister in a costume as pretty as appropriate, for snow and holly made her a perfect Yule. Sylvia loved dancing, and knew "wall flowers" only by sight; therefore she was busy; her lover's gift shone greenly in bosom, hair, and fleecy skirts; therefore she was beautiful, and the thought that Adam had not forgotten her lay warm at her heart; therefore she was supremely happy. Mark was devoted, but disappointed, for Jessie did not come, and having doomed the detaining aunts and uncles to a most unblessed fate, he sought consolation among less fair damsels.
"Now go and enjoy yourself. I shall dance no more round dances, for I'd rather not with any one but you, and you have been a martyr long enough."
Mark roamed away, and finding a cool corner Sylvia watched the animated scene before her till her wandering glance was arrested by the sight of a new comer, and her mind busied with trying to recollect where she had seen him. The slender figure, swarthy face, and vivacious eyes all seemed familiar, but she could find no name for their possessor till he caught her eye, when he half bowed and wholly smiled. Then she remembered, and while still recalling that brief interview one of their young hosts appeared with the stranger, and Gabriel André was duly presented.
"I could hardly expect to be remembered, and am much flattered, I assure you. Did you suffer from the shower that day, Miss Yule?"
The speech was nothing, but the foreign accent gave a softness to the words, and the southern grace of manner gave an air of romance to the handsome youth. Sylvia was in the mood to be pleased with everybody, everything, and was unusually gracious as they merrily pursued the subject suggested by his question. Presently he asked--
"Is Warwick with you now?"
"He was not staying with us, but with his friend, Mr. Moor."
"He was the gentleman who pulled so well that day?"
"Is Warwick with him still?"
"Oh, no, he went away three months ago."
"I wonder where!"
"So do I!"
The wish had been impulsively expressed, and was as impulsively echoed. Young André smiled, and liked Miss Yule the better for forgetting that somewhat lofty air of hers.
"You have no conjecture, then? I wish to find him, much, very much, but cannot put myself upon his trail. He is so what you call peculiar that he writes no letters, leaves no address, and roves here and there like a born gitano."
"Have you ill news for him?"
"I have the best a man could desire; but fear that while I look for him he has gone to make a disappointment for himself. You are a friend, I think?"
"Then you know much of him, his life, his ways?"
"Yes, both from himself and Mr. Moor."
"Then you know of his betrothal to my cousin, doubtless, and I may speak of it, because if you will be so kind you may perhaps help us to find him."
"I did not know--perhaps he did not wish it--" began Sylvia, folding one hand tightly in the other, with a quick breath and a momentary sensation as if some one had struck her in the face.
"He thinks so little of us I shall not regard his wish just now. If you will permit me I would say a word for my cousin's sake, as I know you will be interested for her, and I do not feel myself strange with you."
Sylvia bowed, and standing before her with an air half mannish, half boyish, Gabriel went on in the low, rapid tone peculiar to him.
"See, then, my cousin was betrothed in May. A month after Adam cries out that he loves too much for his peace, that he has no freedom of his heart or mind, that he must go away and take his breath before he is made a happy slave forever. Ottila told me this. She implored him to stay; but no, he vows he will not come again till they marry, in the next June. He thinks it a weakness to adore a woman. Impertinente! I have no patience for him."
Gabriel spoke indignantly, and pressed his foot into the carpet with a scornful look. But Sylvia took no heed of his petulance, she only kept her eyes fixed upon him with an intentness which he mistook for interest. The eyes were fine, the interest was flattering, and though quite aware that he was both taking a liberty and committing a breach of confidence, the impulsive young gentleman chose to finish what he had begun, and trust that no harm would follow.
"He has been gone now more than half a year, but has sent no letter, no message, nothing to show that he still lives. Ottila waits, she writes, she grows too anxious to endure, she comes to look for him. I help her, but we do not find him yet, and meantime I amuse her. My friends are kind, and we enjoy much as we look about us for this truant Adam."
If Sylvia could have doubted the unexpected revelation, this last trait was so like Warwick it convinced her at once. Though the belief to which she had clung so long was suddenly swept from under her, she floated silently with no outward sign of shipwreck as her hope went down. Pride was her shield, and crowding back all other emotions she kept herself unnaturally calm behind it till she was alone. If Gabriel had been watching her he would only have discovered that she was a paler blonde than he had thought her; that her address was more coldly charming than before; and that her eye no longer met his, but rested steadily on the folded fan she held. He was not watching her, however, but glancing frequently over her head at something at the far end of the rooms which a crowd of assiduous gentlemen concealed. His eye wandered, but his thoughts did not; for still intent on the purpose that seemed to have brought him to her, he said, as if reluctant to be importunate, yet resolved to satisfy himself--
"Pardon me that I so poorly entertain you, and let me ask one other question in Ottila's name. This Moor, would he not give us some clue to Adam's haunts?"
"He is absent, and will be till spring, I think. Where I do not know, else I could write for you. Did Mr. Warwick promise to return in June?"
"Then, if he lives, he will come. Your cousin must wait; it will not be in vain."
"It shall not!"
The young man's voice was stern, and a passionate glitter made his black eyes fierce. Then the former suavity returned, and with his most gallant air he said--
"You are kind, Miss Yule; I thank you, and put away this so troublesome affair. May I have the honor?"
If he had proposed to waltz over a precipice Sylvia felt as if she could have accepted, provided there was time to ask a question or two before the crash came. A moment afterward Mark was surprised to see her floating round the room on the arm of "the olive-colored party," whom he recognized at once. His surprise soon changed to pleasure, for his beauty-loving eye as well as his brotherly pride was gratified as the whirling couples subsided and the young pair went circling slowly by, giving to the graceful pastime the enchantment few have skill to lend it, and making it a spectacle of life-enjoying youth to be remembered by the lookers on.
"Thank you! I have not enjoyed such a waltz since I left Cuba. It is the rudest of rude things to say, but to you I may confide it, because you dance like a Spaniard. The ladies here seem to me as cold as their own snow, and they make dancing a duty, not a pleasure. They should see Ottila; she is all grace and fire. I could kill myself dancing with her. Adam used to say it was like wine to watch her."
"I wish she was here to give us a lesson."
"She is, but will not dance to-night."
"Here!" cried Sylvia, stopping abruptly.
"Why not? Elyott is mad for her, and gave me no peace till I brought her. She is behind that wall of men; shall I make a passage for you? She will be glad to talk with you of Adam, and I to show you the handsomest woman in Habana."
"Let us wait a little; I should be afraid to talk before so many. She is very beautiful, then."
"You will laugh and call me extravagant, as others do, if I say what I think; so I will let you judge for yourself. See, your brother stands on tiptoe to peep at her. Now he goes in, and there he will stay. You do not like that, perhaps. But Ottila cannot help her beauty, nor the power she has of making all men love her. I wish she could!"
"She is gifted and accomplished, as well as lovely?" asked Sylvia, glancing at her companion's gloomy face.
"She is everything a woman should be, and I could shoot Adam for his cruel neglect."
Gabriel's dark face kindled as he spoke, and Sylvia drearily wished he would remember how ill-bred it was to tire her with complaints of her friend, and raptures over his cousin. He seemed to perceive this, turned a little haughty at her silence, and when he spoke was all the stranger again.
"This is a contra danza; shall we give the snow-ladies another lesson? First, may I do myself the pleasure of getting you an ice?"
"A glass of water, please; I am cool enough without more ice."
He seated her and went upon his errand. She was cool now; weary-footed, sick at heart, and yearning to be alone. But in these days women do not tear their hair and make scenes, though their hearts may ache and burn with the same sharp suffering as of old. Till her brother came she knew she must bear it, and make no sign. She did bear it, drank the water with a smile, danced the dance with spirit, and bore up bravely till Mark appeared. She was alone just then, and his first words were--
"Have you seen her?"
"No; take me where I can, and tell me what you know of her."
"Nothing, but that she is André's cousin, and he adores her, as boys always do a charming woman who is kind to them. Affect to be admiring these flowers, and look without her knowing it, or she will frown at you like an insulted princess, as she did at me."
Sylvia looked, saw the handsomest woman in Havana, and hated her immediately. It was but natural, for Sylvia was a very human girl, and Ottila one whom no woman would love, however much she might admire.
Hers was that type of character which every age has reproduced, varying externally with climates and conditions, but materially the same from fabled Circe down to Lola Montes, or some less famous syren whose subjects are not kings. The same passions that in ancient days broke out in heaven-defying crimes; the same power of beauty, intellect, or subtlety; the same untamable spirit and lack of moral sentiment are the attributes of all; latent or alert as the noble or ignoble nature may predominate. Most of us can recall some glimpse of such specimens of Nature's work in a daring mood. Many of our own drawing-rooms have held illustrations of the nobler type, and modern men and women have quailed before royal eyes whose possessors ruled all spirits but their own. Born in Athens, and endowed with a finer intellect, Ottila might have been an Aspasia; or cast in that great tragedy the French Revolution, have played a brave part and died heroically like Roland and Corday. But set down in uneventful times, the courage, wit, and passion that might have served high ends dwindled to their baser counterparts, and made her what she was,--a fair allurement to the eyes of men, a born rival to the peace of women, a rudderless nature absolute as fate.
Sylvia possessed no knowledge that could analyze for her the sentiment which repelled, even while it attracted her toward Warwick's betrothed. That he loved her she did not doubt, because she felt that even his pride would yield to the potent fascination of this woman. As Sylvia looked, her feminine eye took in every gift of face and figure, every grace of attitude or gesture, every daintiness of costume, and found no visible flaw in Ottila, from her haughty head to her handsome foot. Yet when her scrutiny ended, the girl felt a sense of disappointment, and no envy mingled with her admiration.
As she stood, forgetting to assume interest in the camellias before her, she saw Gabriel join his cousin, saw her pause and look up at him with an anxious question. He answered it, glancing toward that part of the room where she was standing. Ottila's gaze was fixed upon her instantly; a rapid, but keen survey followed, and then the lustrous eyes turned away with such supreme indifference, that Sylvia's blood tingled as if she had received an insult.
"Mark, I am going home," she said, abruptly.
"Very well, I'm ready."
When safe in her own room Sylvia's first act was to take off the holly wreath, for her head throbbed with a heavy pain that forbade hope of sleep that night. Looking at the little chaplet so happily made, she saw that all the berries had fallen, and nothing but the barbed leaves remained. A sudden gesture crushed it in both her hands, and standing so, she gathered many a scattered memory to confirm that night's discovery.
Warwick had said, with such a tender accent in his voice, "I thought of the woman I would make my wife." That was Ottila. He had asked so anxiously, "If one should keep a promise when it disturbed one's peace?" That was because he repented of his hasty vow to absent himself till June. It was not love she saw in his eyes the night they parted, but pity. He read her secret before that compassionate glance revealed it to herself, and he had gone away to spare her further folly. She had deceived herself, had blindly cherished a baseless hope, and this was the end. Even for the nameless gift she found a reason, with a woman's skill, in self-torture. Moor had met Adam, had told his disappointment, and still pitying her Warwick had sent the pretty greeting to console her for the loss of both friend and lover.
This thought seemed to sting her into sudden passion. As if longing to destroy every trace of her delusion, she tore away the holly wreaths and flung them in the fire; took down the bow and arrow Warwick had made her from above the _étagère_, where she had arranged the spoils of her happy voyage, snapped them across her knee and sent them after the holly; followed by the birch canoe, and every pebble, moss, shell, or bunch of headed grass he had given her then. The osier basket was not spared, the box went next, and even the wrapper was on its way to immolation, when, as she rent it apart, with a stern pleasure in the sacrifice it was going to complete, from some close fold of the paper hitherto undisturbed a card dropped at her feet.
She caught it up and read in handwriting almost as familiar as her own: "To Sylvia,--A merry Christmas and best wishes from her friend, Geoffrey Moor." The word "friend" was underscored, as if he desired to assure her that he still cherished the only tie permitted him, and sent the green token to lighten her regret that she could give no more.
Warm over Sylvia's sore heart rushed the tender thought and longing, as her tears began to flow. "He cares for me! he remembered me! I wish he would come back and comfort me!"