As we rolled along, I scanned my companion covertly, and saw much to interest a girl of seventeen. My uncle was a handsome man, with all the polish of foreign life fresh upon him; yet it was neither comeliness nor graceful ease which most attracted me; for even my inexperienced eye caught glimpses of something stern and sombre below these external charms, and my long scrutiny showed me the keenest eye, the hardest mouth, the subtlest smile I ever saw,—a face which in repose wore the look which comes to those who have led lives of pleasure and learned their emptiness. He seemed intent on some thought that absorbed him, and for a time rendered him forgetful of my presence, as he sat with folded arms, fixed eyes, and restless lips. While I looked, my own mind was full of deeper thought than it had ever been before; for I was recalling, word for word, a paragraph in that half-read letter:—
“At eighteen Sybil is to marry her cousin, the compact having been made between my brother and myself in their childhood. My son is with me now, and I wish them to be together during the next few months, therefore my niece must leave you sooner than I at first intended. Oblige me by preparing her for an immediate and final separation, but leave all disclosures to me, as I prefer the girl to remain ignorant of the matter for the present.”
That displeased me. Why was I to remain ignorant of so important an affair? Then I smiled to myself, remembering that I did know, thanks to the wilful curiosity that prompted me to steal a peep into the letter that Madame Bernard had pored over with such an anxious face. I saw only a single paragraph, for my own name arrested my eye; and, though wild to read all, I had scarcely time to whisk the paper back into the reticule the forgetful old soul had left hanging on the arm of her chair. It was enough, however, to set my girlish brain in a ferment, and keep me gazing wistfully at my uncle, conscious that my future now lay in his hands; for I was an orphan and he my guardian, though I had seen him but seldom since I was confided to madame a six years’ child. Presently my uncle became cognizant of my steady stare, and returned it with one as steady for a moment, then said, in a low, smooth tone, that ill accorded with the satirical smile that touched his lips,—
“I am a dull companion for my little niece. How shall I provide her with pleasanter amusement than counting my wrinkles or guessing my thoughts?”
I was a frank, fearless creature, quick to feel, speak, and act, so I answered readily,—
“Tell me about my cousin Guy. Is he as handsome, brave, and clever as madame says his father was when a boy?”
My uncle laughed a short laugh, touched with scorn, whether for madame, himself, or me I could not tell, for his countenance was hard to read.
“A girl’s question and artfully put; nevertheless I shall not answer it, but let you judge for yourself.”
“But, sir, it will amuse me and beguile the way. I feel a little strange and forlorn at leaving madame, and talking of my new home and friends will help me to know and love them sooner. Please tell me, for I’ve had my own way all my life, and can’t bear to be crossed.”
My petulance seemed to amuse him, and I became aware that he was observing me with a scrutiny as keen as my own had been; but I smilingly sustained it, for my vanity was pleased by the approbation his eye betrayed. The evident interest he now took in all I said and did was sufficient flattery for a young thing, who felt her charms and longed to try their power.
“I, too, have had my own way all my life; and as the life is double the length, the will is double the strength of yours, and again I say no. What next, mademoiselle?”
He was blander than ever as he spoke, but I was piqued, and resolved to try coaxing, eager to gain my point, lest a too early submission now should mar my freedom in the future.
“But that is ungallant, uncle, and I still have hopes of a kinder answer, both because you are too generous to refuse so small a favor to your ‘little niece,’ and because she can be charmingly wheedlesome when she likes. Won’t you say yes now, uncle?” and, pleased with the daring of the thing, I put my arm about his neck, kissed him daintily, and perched myself upon his knee with most audacious ease.
He regarded me mutely for an instant, then holding me fast deliberately returned my salute on lips, cheeks, and forehead, with such warmth that I turned scarlet and struggled to free myself, while he laughed that mirthless laugh of his till my shame turned to anger, and I imperiously commanded him to let me go.
“Not yet, young lady. You came here for your own pleasure, but shall stay for mine, till I tame you as I see you must be tamed. It is a short process with me, and I possess experience in the work; for Guy, though by nature as wild as a hawk, has learned to come at my call as meekly as a dove. Chut! what a little fury it is!”
I was just then; for exasperated at his coolness, and quite beside myself, I had suddenly stooped and bitten the shapely white hand that held both my own. I had better have submitted; for slight as the foolish action was, it had an influence on my after life as many another such has had. My uncle stopped laughing, his hand tightened its grasp, for a moment his cold eye glittered and a grim look settled round the mouth, giving to his whole face a ruthless expression that entirely altered it. I felt perfectly powerless. All my little arts had failed, and for the first time I was mastered. Yet only physically; my spirit was rebellious still. He saw it in the glance that met his own, as I sat erect and pale, with something more than childish anger. I think it pleased him, for swiftly as it had come the dark look passed, and quietly, as if we were the best of friends, he began to relate certain exciting adventures he had known abroad, lending to the picturesque narration the charm of that peculiarly melodious voice, which soothed and won me in spite of myself, holding me intent till I forgot the past; and when he paused I found that I was leaning confidentially on his shoulder, asking for more, yet conscious of an instinctive distrust of this man whom I had so soon learned to fear yet fancy.
As I was recalled to myself, I endeavored to leave him; but he still detained me, and, with a curious expression, produced a case so quaintly fashioned that I cried out in admiration, while he selected two cigarettes, mildly aromatic with the herbs they were composed of, lit them, offered me one, dropped the window, and leaning back surveyed me with an air of extreme enjoyment, as I sat meekly puffing and wondering what prank I should play a part in next. Slowly the narcotic influence of the herbs diffused itself like a pleasant haze over all my senses; sleep, the most grateful, fell upon my eyelids, and the last thing I remember was my uncle’s face dreamily regarding me through a cloud of fragrant smoke. Twilight wrapped us in its shadows when I woke, with the night wind blowing on my forehead, the muffled roll of wheels sounding in my ear, and my cheek pillowed upon my uncle’s arm. He was humming a French chanson about “Love and Wine, and the Seine to-morrow!” I listened till I caught the air, and presently joined him, mingling my girlish treble with his flute-like tenor. He stopped at once, and, in the coolly courteous tone I had always heard in our few interviews, asked if I was ready for lights and home.
“Are we there?” I cried; and looking out saw that we were ascending an avenue which swept up to a pile of buildings that rose tall and dark against the sky, with here and there a gleam along its gray front.
298“Home at last, thank Heaven!” And springing out with the agility of a young man, my uncle led me over a terrace into a long hall, light and warm, and odorous with the breath of flowers blossoming here and there in graceful groups. A civil, middle-aged maid received and took me to my room, a bijou of a place, which increased my wonder when told that my uncle had chosen all its decorations and superintended their arrangement. “He understands women,” I thought, handling the toilet ornaments, trying luxurious chair and lounge, and ending by slipping my feet into the scarlet and white Turkish slippers, coquettishly turning up their toes before the fire. A few moments I gave to examination, and, having expressed my satisfaction, was asked by my maid if I would be pleased to dress, as “the master” never allowed dinner to wait for any one. This recalled to me the fact that I was doubtless to meet my future husband at that meal, and in a moment every faculty was intent upon achieving a grand toilette for this first interview. The maid possessed skill and taste, and I a wardrobe lately embellished with Parisian gifts from my uncle which I was eager to display in his honor.
When ready, I surveyed myself in the long mirror as I had never done before, and saw there a little figure, slender, yet stately, in a dress of foreign fashion, ornamented with lace and carnation ribbons which enhanced the fairness of neck and arms, while blonde hair, wavy and golden, was gathered into an antique knot of curls behind, with a carnation fillet, and below a blooming dark-eyed face, just then radiant with girlish vanity and eagerness and hope.
299“I’m glad I’m pretty!”
“So am I, Sybil.”
I had unconsciously spoken aloud, and the echo came from the doorway where stood my uncle, carefully dressed, looking comelier and cooler than ever. The disagreeable smile flitted over his lips as he spoke, and I started, then stood abashed, till beckoning, he added in his most courtly manner,—
“You were so absorbed in the contemplation of your charming self, that Janet answered my tap and took herself away unheard. You are mistress of my table now: it waits; will you come down?”
With a last touch to that unruly hair of mine, a last, comprehensive glance and shake, I took the offered arm and rustled down the wide staircase, feeling that the romance of my life was about to begin. Three covers were laid, three chairs set, but only two were occupied, for no Guy appeared. I asked no questions, showed no surprise, but tried to devour my chagrin with my dinner, and exerted myself to charm my uncle into the belief that I had forgotten my cousin. It was a failure, however, for that empty seat had an irresistible fascination for me, and more than once, as my eye returned from its furtive scrutiny of napkin, plate, and trio of colored glasses, it met my uncle’s and fell before his penetrative glance. When I gladly rose to leave him to his wine,—for he did not ask me to remain,—he also rose, and, as he held the door for me, he said,—
“You asked me to describe your cousin: you have seen one trait of his character to-night; does it please you?”
I knew he was as much vexed as I at Guy’s absence, so quoting his own words I answered saucily,—
“Yes; for I’d rather see the hawk free than coming tamely at your call, uncle.”
He frowned slightly, as if unused to such liberty of speech, yet bowed when I swept him a stately little curtsey and sailed away to the drawing-room, wondering if my uncle was as angry with me as I was with my cousin. In solitary grandeur I amused myself by strolling through the suite of handsome rooms henceforth to be my realm, looked at myself in the long mirrors, as every woman is apt to do when alone and in costume, danced over the mossy carpets, touched the grand piano, smelt the flowers, fingered the ornaments on étagère and table, and was just giving my handkerchief a second drench of some refreshing perfume from a filigree flask that had captivated me, when the hall door was flung wide, a quick step went running upstairs, boots tramped overhead, drawers seemed hastily opened and shut, and a bold, blithe voice broke out into a hunting song in a tone so like my uncle’s that I involuntarily flew to the door, crying,—
“Guy is come!”
Fortunately for my dignity, no one heard me, and hurrying back I stood ready to skim into a chair and assume propriety at a minute’s notice, conscious, meanwhile, of the new influence which seemed suddenly to gift the silent house with vitality, and add the one charm it needed,—that of cheerful companionship. “How will he meet me? and how shall I meet him?” I thought, looking up at the bright-faced boy, whose portrait looked back at me with a mirthful light in the painted eyes and a trace of his father’s disdainful smile in the curves of the firm-set lips. Presently the quick steps came flying down again, past the door, straight to the dining-room opposite, and, as I stood listening with a strange flutter at my heart, I heard an imperious young voice say rapidly,—
“Beg pardon, sir, unavoidably detained. Has she come? Is she bearable?”
“I find her so. Dinner is over, and I can offer you nothing but a glass of wine.”
My uncle’s voice was frostily polite, making a curious contrast to the other, so impetuous and frank, as if used to command or win all but one.
“Never mind the dinner! I’m glad to be rid of it; so I’ll drink your health, father, and then inspect our new ornament.”
“Impertinent boy!” I muttered, yet at the same moment resolved to deserve his appellation, and immediately grouped myself as effectively as possible, laughing at my folly as I did so. I possessed a pretty foot, therefore one little slipper appeared quite naturally below the last flounce of my dress; a bracelet glittered on my arm as it emerged from among the lace and carnation knots; that arm supported my head. My profile was well cut, my eyelashes long, therefore I read with face half averted from the door. The light showered down, turning my hair to gold; so I smoothed my curls, retied my snood, and, after a satisfied survey, composed myself with an absorbed aspect and a quickened pulse to await the arrival of the gentlemen.
Soon they came. I knew they paused on the threshold, but never stirred till an irrepressible, “You are right, sir!” escaped the younger. Then I rose prepared to give him the coldest greeting, yet I did not. I had almost expected to meet the boyish face and figure of the picture; I saw, instead, a man comely and tall. A dark moustache half hid the proud mouth; the vivacious eyes were far kinder, though quite as keen as his father’s, and the freshness of unspoiled youth lent a charm which the older man had lost for ever. Guy’s glance of pleased surprise was flatteringly frank, his smile so cordial, his “Welcome, cousin!” such a hearty sound, that my coldness melted in a breath, my dignity was all forgotten, and before I could restrain myself I had offered both hands with the impulsive exclamation,—
“Cousin Guy, I know I shall be very happy here! Are you glad I have come?”
“Glad as I am to see the sun after a November fog.”
And, bending his tall head, he kissed my hand in the graceful foreign fashion he had learned abroad. It pleased me mightily, for it was both affectionate and respectful. Involuntarily I contrasted it with my uncle’s manner, and flashed a significant glance at him as I did so. He understood it, but only nodded with the satirical look I hated, shook out his paper and began to read. I sat down again, careless of myself now; and Guy stood on the rug, surveying me with an expression of surprise that rather nettled my pride.
“He is only a boy, after all; so I need not be daunted by his inches or his airs. I wonder if he knows I am to be his wife, and likes it.”
The thought sent the color to my forehead, my eyes fell, and despite my valiant resolution, I sat like any bashful child before my handsome cousin. Guy laughed a boyish laugh as he sat down on his father’s footstool, saying, while he warmed his slender brown hands,—
“I beg your pardon, Sybil. (We won’t be formal, will we?) But I haven’t seen a lady for a month, so I stare like a boor at sight of a silk gown and high-bred face. Are those people coming, sir?”
“If Sybil likes, ask her.”
“Shall we have a flock of people here to make it gay for you, cousin, or do you prefer our quiet style better; just riding, driving, lounging, and enjoying life, each in his own way? Henceforth it is to be as you command in such matters.”
“Let things go on as they have done, then. I don’t care for society, and strangers wouldn’t make it gay to me, for I like freedom; so do you, I think.”
“Ah, don’t I!”
A cloud flitted over his smiling face, and he punched the fire, as if some vent were necessary for the sudden gust of petulance that knit his black brows into a frown, and caused his father to tap him on the shoulder with the bland request, as he rose to leave the room,—
“Bring the portfolios and entertain your cousin; I have letters to write, and Sybil is too tired to care for music to-night.”
Guy obeyed with a shrug of the shoulder his father touched, but lingered in the recess till my uncle, having made his apologies to me, had left the room; then my cousin rejoined me, wearing the same cordial aspect I first beheld. Some restraint was evidently removed, and his natural self appeared. A very winsome self it was, courteous, gay, and frank, with an undertone of deeper feeling than I thought to find. I watched him covertly, and soon owned to myself that he was all I most admired in the ideal hero every girl creates in her romantic fancy; for I no longer looked upon this young man as my cousin, but my lover, and through all our future intercourse this thought was always uppermost, full of a charm that never lost its power.
Before the evening ended Guy was kneeling on the rug beside me, our two heads close together, while he turned the contents of the great portfolio spread before us, looking each other freely in the face, as I listened and he described, both breaking into frequent peals of laughter at some odd adventure or comical mishap in his own travels, suggested by the pictured scenes before us. Guy was very charming, I my blithest, sweetest self, and when we parted late, my cousin watched me up the stairs with still another, “Good-night, Sybil,” as if both sight and sound were pleasant to him.
“Is that your horse Sultan?” I called from my window next morning, as I looked down upon my cousin, who was coming up the drive from an early gallop on the moors.
“Yes, bonny Sybil; come and admire him,” he called back, hat in hand, and a quick smile rippling over his face.
I went, and, standing on the terrace, caressed the handsome creature, while Guy said, glancing up at his father’s undrawn curtains,—
“If your saddle had come, we would take a turn before ‘my lord’ is ready for breakfast. This autumn air is the wine you women need.”
I yearned to go, and when I willed the way soon appeared; so careless of bonnetless head and cambric gown, I stretched my hands to him, saying boldly,—
“Play young Lochinvar, Guy; I am little and light; take me up before you and show me the sea.”
He liked the daring feat, held out his hand, I stepped on his boot toe, sprang up, and away we went over the wide moor, where the sun shone in a cloudless heaven, the lark soared singing from the green grass at our feet, and the September wind blew freshly from the sea. As we paused on the upland slope, that gave us a free view of the country for miles, Guy dismounted, and, standing with his arm about the saddle to steady me in my precarious seat, began to talk.
“Do you like your new home, cousin?”
“More than I can tell you!”
“And my father, Sybil?”
“Both yes and no to that question, Guy; I hardly know him yet.”
“True, but you must not expect to find him as indulgent and fond as many guardians would be to such as you. It’s not his nature. Yet you can win his heart by obedience, and soon grow quite at ease with him.”
“Bless you! I’m that already, for I fear no one. Why, I sat on his knee yesterday and smoked a cigarette of his own offering, though madame would have fainted if she had seen me; then I slept on his arm an hour, and he was fatherly kind, though I teased him like a gnat.”
“The deuce he was!” with which energetic expression Guy frowned at the landscape and harshly checked Sultan’s attempt to browse, while I wondered what was amiss between father and son, and resolved to discover; but, finding the conversation at an end, started it afresh, by asking,—
“Is any of my property in this part of the country, Guy? Do you know I am as ignorant as a baby about my own affairs; for, as long as every whim was gratified and my purse full, I left the rest to madame and uncle, though the first hadn’t a bit of judgment, and the last I scarcely knew. I never cared to ask questions before, but now I am intensely curious to know how matters stand.”
“All you see is yours, Sybil,” was the brief answer.
“What, that great house, the lovely gardens, these moors, and the forest stretching to the sea? I’m glad! I’m glad! But where, then, is your home, Guy?”
At this I looked so amazed, that his gloom vanished in a laugh, as he explained, but briefly, as if this subject were no pleasanter than the first,—
“By your father’s will you were desired to take possession of the old place at eighteen. You will be that soon; therefore, as your guardian, my father has prepared things for you, and is to share your home until you marry.”
“When will that be, I wonder?” and I stole a glance from under my lashes, wild to discover if Guy knew of the compact and was a willing party to it. His face was half averted, but over his dark cheek I saw a deep flush rise, as he answered, stooping to pull a bit of heather,—
“Soon, I hope, or the gentleman sleeping there below will be tempted to remain a fixture with you on his knee as ‘madame my wife.’ He is not your own uncle, you know.”
I smiled at the idea, but Guy did not see it; and seized with a whim to try my skill with the hawk that seemed inclined to peck at its master, I said demurely,—
“Well, why not? I might be very happy if I learned to love him, as I should, if he were always in that kindest mood of his. Would you like me for a little mamma, Guy?”
“No!” short and sharp as a pistol shot.
“Then you must marry and have a home of your own, my son.”
“Don’t, Sybil! I’d rather you didn’t see me in a rage, for I’m not a pleasant sight, I assure you; and I’m afraid I shall be in one if you go on. I early lost my mother, but I love her tenderly, because my father is not much to me, and I know if she had lived I should not be what I am.”
Bitter was his voice, moody his mien, and all the sunshine gone at once. I looked down and touched his black hair with a shy caress, feeling both penitent and pitiful.
“Dear Guy, forgive me if I pained you. I’m a thoughtless creature, but I’m not malicious, and a word will restrain me if kindly spoken. My home is always yours, and when my fortune is mine you shall never want, if you are not too proud to accept help from your own kin. You are a little proud, aren’t you?”
“As Lucifer, to most people. I think I should not be to you, for you understand me, Sybil, and with you I hope to grow a better man.”
He turned then, and through the lineaments his father had bequeathed him I saw a look that must have been his mother’s, for it was womanly, sweet, and soft, and lent new beauty to the dark eyes, always kind, and just then very tender. He had checked his words suddenly, like one who has gone too far, and with that hasty look into my face had bent his own upon the ground, as if to hide the unwonted feeling that had mastered him. It lasted but a moment, then his old manner returned, as he said gayly,—
“There drops your slipper. I’ve been wondering what kept it on. Pretty thing! They say it is a foot like this that oftenest tramples on men’s hearts. Are you cruel to your lovers, Sybil?”
“I never had one, for madame guarded me like a dragon, and I led the life of a nun; but when I do find one I shall try his mettle well before I give up my liberty.”
“Poets say it is sweet to give up liberty for love, and they ought to know,” answered Guy, with a sidelong glance.
I liked that little speech, and recollecting the wistful look he had given me, the significant words that had escaped him, and the variations of tone and manner constantly succeeding one another, I felt assured that my cousin was cognizant of the family league, and accepted it, yet, with the shyness of a young lover, knew not how to woo. This pleased me, and, quite satisfied with my morning’s work, I mentally resolved to charm my cousin slowly, and enjoy the romance of a genuine wooing, without which no woman’s life seems complete,—in her own eyes, at least. He had gathered me a knot of purple heather, and as he gave it I smiled my sweetest on him, saying,—
“I commission you to supply me with nosegays, for you have taste, and I love wild-flowers. I shall wear this at dinner in honor of its giver. Now take me home; for my moors, though beautiful, are chilly, and I have no wrapper but this microscopic handkerchief.”
Off went his riding-jacket, and I was half smothered in it. The hat followed next, and as he sprung up behind I took the reins, and felt a thrill of delight in sweeping down the slope with that mettlesome creature tugging at the bit, that strong arm round me, and the happy hope that the heart I leaned on might yet learn to love me.
The day so began passed pleasantly, spent in roving over house and grounds with my cousin, setting my possessions in order, and writing to dear old madame. Twilight found me in my bravest attire, with Guy’s heather in my hair, listening for his step, and longing to run and meet him when he came. Punctual to the instant he appeared, and this dinner was a far different one from that of yesterday, for both father and son seemed in their gayest and most gallant mood, and I enjoyed the hour heartily. The world seemed all in tune now, and when I went to the drawing-room I was moved to play my most stirring marches, sing my blithest songs, hoping to bring one at least of the gentlemen to join me. It brought both, and my first glance showed me a curious change in each. My uncle looked harassed and yet amused, Guy looked sullen and eyed his father with covert glances.
The morning’s chat flashed into my mind, and I asked myself, “Is Guy jealous so soon?” It looked a little like it, for he threw himself upon a couch and lay there silent and morose; while my uncle paced to and fro, thinking deeply, while apparently listening to the song he bade me finish. I did so, then followed the whim that now possessed me, for I wanted to try my power over them both, to see if I could restore that gentler mood of my uncle’s, and assure myself that Guy cared whether I was friendliest with him or not.
“Uncle, come and sing with me; I like that voice of yours.”
“Tut, I am too old for that; take this indolent lad instead, his voice is fresh and young, and will chord well with yours.”
“Do you know that pretty chanson about ‘Love and Wine, and the Seine to-morrow,’ cousin Guy?” I asked, stealing a sly glance at my uncle.
“Who taught you that?” and Guy eyed me over the top of the couch with an astonished expression which greatly amused me.
“No one; uncle sang a bit of it in the carriage yesterday. I like the air, so come and teach me the rest.”
“It is no song for you, Sybil. You choose strange entertainment for a lady, sir.”
A look of unmistakable contempt was in the son’s eye, of momentary annoyance in the father’s, yet his voice betrayed none as he answered, still pacing placidly along the room,—
“I thought she was asleep, and unconsciously began it to beguile a silent drive. Sing on, Sybil; that Bacchanalian snatch will do you no harm.”
But I was tired of music now they had come, so I went to him, and, passing my arm through his, walked beside him, saying with my most persuasive aspect,—
“Tell me about Paris, uncle; I intend to go there as soon as I’m of age, if you will let me. Does your guardianship extend beyond that time?”
“Only till you marry.”
“I shall be in no haste, then, for I begin to feel quite homelike and happy here with you, and shall be content without other society; only you’ll soon tire of me, and leave me to some dismal governess, while you and Guy go pleasuring.”
“No fear of that, Sybil; I shall hold you fast till some younger guardian comes to rob me of my merry ward.”
As he spoke, he took the hand that lay upon his arm into a grasp so firm, and turned on me a look so keen, that I involuntarily dropped my eyes lest he should read my secret there. Eager to turn the conversation, I asked, pointing to a little miniature hanging underneath the portrait of his son, before which he had paused,—
“Was that Guy’s mother, sir?”
“No, your own.”
I looked again, and saw a face delicate yet spirited, with dark eyes, a passionate mouth, and a head crowned with hair as plenteous and golden as my own; but the whole seemed dimmed by age, the ivory was stained, the glass cracked, and a faded ribbon fastened it. My eyes filled as I looked, and a strong desire seized me to know what had defaced this little picture of the mother whom I never knew.
“Tell me about her, uncle; I know so little, and often long for her so much. Am I like her, sir?”
Why did my uncle avert his eyes as he answered,—
“You are a youthful image of her, Sybil.”
“Go on please, tell me more; tell me why this is so stained and worn; you know all, and surely I am old enough now to hear any history of pain and loss.”
Something caused my uncle to knit his brows, but his bland voice never varied a tone as he placed the picture in my hand and gave me this brief explanation:—
“Just before your birth your father was obliged to cross the Channel, to receive the last wishes of a dying friend; there was an accident; the vessel foundered, and many lives were lost. He escaped, but by some mistake his name appeared in the list of missing passengers; your mother saw it, the shock destroyed her, and when your father returned he found only a motherless little daughter to welcome him. This miniature, which he always carried with him, was saved with his papers at the last moment; but though the sea-water ruined it he would never have it copied or retouched, and gave it to me when he died in memory of the woman I had loved for his sake. It is yours now, my child; keep it, and never feel that you are fatherless or motherless while I remain.”
Kind as was both act and speech, neither touched me, for something seemed wanting. I felt, yet could not define it, for then I believed in the sincerity of all I met.
“Where was she buried, uncle? It may be foolish, but I should like to see my mother’s grave.”
“You shall some day, Sybil,” and a curious change came over my uncle’s face as he averted it.
“I have made him melancholy, talking of Guy’s mother and my own; now I’ll make him gay again if possible, and pique that negligent boy,” I thought, and drew my uncle to a lounging-chair, established myself on the arm thereof, and kept him laughing with my merriest gossip, both of us apparently unconscious of the long dark figure stretched just opposite, feigning sleep, but watching us through half-closed lids, and never stirring except to bow silently to my careless “Good-night.”
As I reached the stairhead, I remembered that my letter to madame, full of the frankest criticisms upon people and things, was lying unsealed on the table in the little room my uncle had set apart for my boudoir; fearing servants’ eyes and tongues, I slipped down again to get it. The room adjoined the parlors, and just then was lit only by a ray from the hall lamp. I had secured the letter, and was turning to retreat, when I heard Guy say petulantly, as if thwarted yet submissive,—
“I am civil when you leave me alone; I do agree to marry her, but I won’t be hurried or go a-wooing except in my own way. You know I never liked the bargain, for it’s nothing else; yet I can reconcile myself to being sold, if it relieves you and gives us both a home. But, father, mind this, if you tie me to that girl’s sash too tightly I shall break away entirely, and then where are we?”
“I should be in prison and you a houseless vagabond. Trust me, my boy, and take the good fortune which I secured for you in your cradle. Look in pretty Sybil’s face, and resignation will grow easy; but remember time presses, that this is our forlorn hope, and for God’s sake be cautious, for she is a headstrong creature, and may refuse to fulfil her part if she learns that the contract is not binding against her will.”
“I think she’ll not refuse, sir; she likes me already. I see it in her eyes; she has never had a lover, she says, and according to your account a girl’s first sweetheart is apt to fare the best. Besides, she likes the place, for I told her it was hers, as you bade me, and she said she could be very happy here, if my father was always kind.”
“She said that, did she? little hypocrite! For your father, read yourself, and tell me what else she babbled about in that early tête-à-tête of yours.”
“You are as curious as a woman, sir, and always make me tell you all I do and say, yet never tell me any thing in return, except this business, which I hate, because my liberty is the price, and my poor little cousin is kept in the dark. I’ll tell her all, before I marry her, father.”
“As you please, hot-head. I am waiting for an account of the first love passage, so leave blushing to Sybil and begin.”
I knew what was coming and stayed no longer, but caught one glimpse of the pair, Guy in his favorite place, erect upon the rug, half-laughing, half-frowning as he delayed to speak, my uncle serenely smoking on the couch; then I sped away to my own room, thinking, as I sat down in a towering passion,—
“So he does know of the baby betrothal and hates it, yet submits to please his father, who covets my fortune,—mercenary creatures! I can annul the contract, can I? I’m glad to know that, for it makes me mistress of them both. I like you already, do I? and you see it in my eyes. Coxcomb! I’ll be the thornier for that. Yet I do like him; I do wish he cared for me, I’m so lonely in the world, and he can be so kind.”
So I cried a little, brushed my hair a good deal, and went to bed, resolving to learn all I could when, where, and how I pleased, to render myself as charming and valuable as possible, to make Guy love me in spite of himself, and then say yes or no, as my heart prompted me.
That day was a sample of those that followed, for my cousin was by turns attracted or repelled by the capricious moods that ruled me. Though conscious of a secret distrust of my uncle, I could not resist the fascination of his manner when he chose to exert its influence over me; this made my little plot easier of execution, for jealousy seemed the most effectual means to bring my wayward cousin to subjection. Full of this fancy, I seemed to tire of his society, grew thorny as a briar rose to him, affectionate as a daughter to my uncle, who surveyed us both with that inscrutable glance of his, and slowly yielded to my dominion as if he had divined my purpose and desired to aid it. Guy turned cold and gloomy, yet still lingered near me as if ready for a relenting look or word. I liked that, and took a wanton pleasure in prolonging the humiliation of the warm heart I had learned to love, yet not to value as I ought, until it was too late.
One dull November evening as I went wandering up and down the hall, pretending to enjoy the flowers, yet in reality waiting for Guy, who had left me alone all day, my uncle came from his room, where he had sat for many hours with the harassed and anxious look he always wore when certain foreign letters came.
“Sybil, I have something to show and tell you,” he said, as I garnished his button-hole with a spray of heliotrope, meant for the laggard, who would understand its significance, I hoped. Leading me to the drawing-room, my uncle put a paper into my hands, with the request,—
“This is a copy of your father’s will; oblige me by reading it.”
He stood watching my face as I read, no doubt wondering at my composure while I waded through the dry details of the will, curbing my impatience to reach the one important passage. There it was, but no word concerning my power to dissolve the engagement if I pleased; and, as I realized the fact, a sudden bewilderment and sense of helplessness came over me, for the strange law terms seemed to make inexorable the paternal decree which I had not seen before. I forgot my studied calmness, and asked several questions eagerly.
“Uncle, did my father really command that I should marry Guy, whether we loved each other or not?”
“You see what he there set down as his desire; and I have taken measures that you should love one another, knowing that few cousins, young, comely, and congenial, could live three months together without finding themselves ready to mate for their own sakes, if not for the sake of the dead and living fathers to whom they owe obedience.”
“You said I need not, if I didn’t choose; why is it not here?”
“I said that? Never, Sybil!” and I met a look of such entire surprise and incredulity it staggered my belief in my own senses, yet also roused my spirit, and, careless of consequences, I spoke out at once,—
“I heard you say it myself the night after I came, when you told Guy to be cautious, because I could refuse to fulfil the engagement, if I knew that it was not binding against my will.”
This discovery evidently destroyed some plan, and for a moment threw him off his guard; for, crumpling the paper in his hand, he sternly demanded,—
“You turned eavesdropper early; how often since?”
“Never, uncle; I did not mean it then, but, going for a letter in the dark, I heard your voices, and listened for an instant. It was dishonorable, but irresistible; and, if you force Guy’s confidence, why should not I steal yours? All is fair in war, sir, and I forgive as I hope to be forgiven.”
“You have a quick wit and a reticence I did not expect to find under that frank manner. So you have known your future destiny all these months, then, and have a purpose in your treatment of your cousin and myself?”
“May I ask what?”
I was ashamed to tell; and, in the little pause before my answer came, my pique at Guy’s desertion was augmented by anger at my uncle’s denial of his own words the ungenerous hopes he cherished, and a strong desire to perplex and thwart him took possession of me, for I saw his anxiety concerning the success of this interview, though he endeavored to repress and conceal it. Assuming my coldest mien, I said,—
“No, sir, I think not; only I can assure you that my little plot has succeeded better than your own.”
“But you intend to obey your father’s wish, I hope, and fulfil your part of the compact, Sybil?”
“Why should I? It is not binding, you know, and I’m too young to lose my liberty just yet; besides, such compacts are unjust, unwise. What right had my father to mate me in my cradle? how did he know what I should become, or Guy? how could he tell that I should not love some one else better? No! I’ll not be bargained away like a piece of merchandise, but love and marry when I please!”
At this declaration of independence my uncle’s face darkened ominously, some new suspicion lurked in his eye, some new anxiety beset him; but his manner was calm, his voice blander than ever as he asked,—
“Is there then, some one whom you love? Confide in me, my girl.”
“And if there were, what then?”
“All would be changed at once, Sybil. But who is it? Some young lover left behind at madame’s?”
“Who, then? You have led a recluse life here. Guy has no friends who visit him, and mine are all old, yet you say you love.”
“With all my heart, uncle.”
“Is this affection returned, Sybil?”
“I think so.”
“And it is not Guy?”
I was wicked enough to enjoy the bitter disappointment he could not conceal at my decided words, for I thought he deserved that momentary pang; but I could not as decidedly answer that last question, for I would not lie, neither would I confess just yet; so, with a little gesture of impatience, I silently turned away, lest he should see the tell-tale color in my cheeks. My uncle stood an instant in deep thought, a slow smile crept to his lips, content returned to his mien, and something like a flash of triumph glittered for a moment in his eye, then vanished, leaving his countenance earnestly expectant. Much as this change surprised me, his words did more, for, taking both my hands in his, he gravely said,—
“Do you know that I am your uncle by adoption and not blood, Sybil?”
“Yes, sir; I heard so, but forgot about it,” and I looked up at him, my anger quite lost in astonishment.
“Let me tell you, then. Your grandfather was childless for many years, my mother was an early friend, and when her death left me an orphan, he took me for his son and heir. But two years from that time your father was born. I was too young to realize the entire change this might make in my life. The old man was too just and generous to let me feel it, and the two lads grew up together like brothers. Both married young, and when you were born a few years later than my son, your father said to me, ‘Your boy shall have my girl, and the fortune I have innocently robbed you of shall make us happy in our children.’ Then the family league was made, renewed at his death, and now destroyed by his daughter, unless—Sybil, I am forty-five, you not eighteen, yet you once said you could be very happy with me, if I were always kind to you. I can promise that I will be, for I love you. My darling, you reject the son, will you accept the father?”
If he had struck me, it would scarcely have dismayed me more. I started up, and snatching away my hands hid my face in them, for after the first tingle of surprise an almost irresistible desire to laugh came over me, but I dared not, and gravely, gently he went on,—
“I am a bold man to say this, yet I mean it most sincerely. I never meant to betray the affection I believed you never could return, and would only laugh at as a weakness; but your past acts, your present words, give me courage to confess that I desire to keep my ward mine for ever. Shall it be so?”
He evidently mistook my surprise for maidenly emotion, and the suddenness of this unforeseen catastrophe seemed to deprive me of words. All thought of merriment or ridicule was forgotten in a sense of guilt, for if he feigned the love he offered it was well done, and I believed it then. I saw at once the natural impression conveyed by my conduct; my half confession and the folly of it all oppressed me with a regret and shame I could not master. My mind was in dire confusion, yet a decided “No” was rapidly emerging from the chaos, but was not uttered; for just at this crisis, as I stood with my uncle’s arm about me, my hand again in his, and his head bent down to catch my answer, Guy swung himself gayly into the room. A glance seemed to explain all, and in an instant his face assumed that expression of pale wrath so much more terrible to witness than the fiercest outbreak; his eye grew fiery, his voice bitterly sarcastic, as he said,—
“Ah, I see; the play goes on, but the actors change parts. I congratulate you, sir, on your success, and Sybil on her choice. Henceforth I am de trop, but before I go allow me to offer my wedding gift. You have taken the bride, let me supply the ring.”
He threw a jewel-box upon the table, adding, in that unnaturally calm tone that made my heart stand still:
“A little candor would have spared me much pain, Sybil; yet I hope you will enjoy your bonds as heartily as I shall my escape from them. A little confidence would have made me your ally, not your rival, father. I have not your address; therefore I lose, you win. Let it be so. I had rather be the vagabond this makes me than sell myself, that you may gamble away that girl’s fortune as you have your own and mine. You need not ask me to the wedding, I will not come. Oh, Sybil, I so loved, so trusted you!”
And with that broken exclamation he was gone.
The stormy scene had passed so rapidly, been so strange and sudden, Guy’s anger so scornful and abrupt, I could not understand it, and felt like a puppet in the grasp of some power I could not resist; but as my lover left the room I broke out of the bewilderment that held me, imploring him to stay and hear me.
It was too late, he was gone, and Sultan’s tramp was already tearing down the avenue. I listened till the sound died, then my hot temper rose past control, and womanlike asserted itself in vehement and voluble speech: I was angry with my uncle, my cousin, and myself, and for several minutes poured forth a torrent of explanations, reproaches, and regrets, such as only a passionate girl could utter.
My uncle stood where I had left him when I flew to the door with my vain cry; he now looked baffled, yet sternly resolved, and as I paused for breath his only answer was,—
“Sybil, you ask me to bring back that headstrong boy; I cannot; he will never come. This marriage was distasteful to him, yet he submitted for my sake, because I have been unfortunate, and we are poor. Let him go, forget the past, and be to me what I desire, for I loved your father and will be a faithful guardian to his daughter all my life. Child, it must be,—come, I implore, I command you.”
He beckoned imperiously as if to awe me, and held up the glittering betrothal ring as if to tempt me. The tone, the act, the look put me quite beside myself. I did go to him, did take the ring, but said as resolutely as himself,—
“Guy rejects me, and I have done with love. Uncle, you would have deceived me, used me as a means to your own selfish ends. I will accept neither yourself nor your gifts, for now I despise both you and your commands;” and, as the most energetic emphasis I could give to my defiance, I flung the ring, case and all, across the room; it struck the great mirror, shivered it just in the middle, and sent several loosened fragments crashing to the floor.
“Great heavens! is the young lady mad?” exclaimed a voice behind us. Both turned and saw Dr. Karnac, a stealthy, sallow-faced Spaniard, for whom I had an invincible aversion. He was my uncle’s physician, had been visiting a sick servant in the upper regions, and my adverse fate sent him to the door just at that moment with that unfortunate exclamation on his lips.
“What do you say?”
My uncle wheeled about and eyed the new-comer intently as he repeated his words. I have no doubt I looked like one demented, for I was desperately angry, pale and trembling with excitement, and as they fronted me with a curious expression of alarm on their faces, a sudden sense of the absurdity of the spectacle came over me; I laughed hysterically a moment, then broke into a passion of regretful tears, remembering that Guy was gone. As I sobbed behind my hands, I knew the gentlemen were whispering together and of me, but I never heeded them, for as I wept myself calmer a comforting thought occurred to me; Guy could not have gone far, for Sultan had been out all day, and though reckless of himself he was not of his horse, which he loved like a human being; therefore he was doubtless at the house of an humble friend near by. If I could slip away unseen, I might undo my miserable work, or at least see him again before he went away into the world, perhaps never to return. This hope gave me courage for any thing, and dashing away my tears I took a covert survey. Dr. Karnac and my uncle still stood before the fire, deep in their low-toned conversation; their backs were toward me, and, hushing the rustle of my dress, I stole away with noiseless steps into the hall, seized Guy’s plaid, and, opening the great door unseen, darted down the avenue.
Not far, however; the wind buffeted me to and fro, the rain blinded me, the mud clogged my feet and soon robbed me of a slipper; groping for it in despair, I saw a light flash into the outer darkness; heard voices calling, and soon the swift tramp of steps behind me. Feeling like a hunted doe, I ran on, but before I had gained a dozen yards my shoeless foot struck a sharp stone, and I fell half-stunned upon the wet grass of the wayside bank. Dr. Karnac reached me first, took me up as if I were a naughty child, and carried me back through a group of staring servants to the drawing-room, my uncle following with breathless entreaties that I would be calm, and a most uncharacteristic display of bustle.
I was horribly ashamed; my head ached with the shock of the fall, my foot bled, my heart fluttered, and when the doctor put me down the crisis came, for as my uncle bent over me with the strange question, “My poor girl, do you know me?” an irresistible impulse impelled me to push him from me, crying passionately,—
“Yes, I know and hate you; let me go! let me go, or it will be too late!” then, quite spent with the varying emotions of the last hour, for the first time in my life I swooned away.
Coming to myself, I found I was in my own room, with my uncle, the doctor, Janet, and Mrs. Best, the housekeeper, gathered about me, the latter saying, as she bathed my temples,—
“She’s a sad sight, poor thing, so young, so bonny, and so unfortunate. Did you ever see her so before, Janet?”
“Bless you, no, ma’am; there was no signs of such a tantrum when I dressed her for dinner.”
“What do they mean? did they never see any one angry before?” I dimly wondered, and presently, through the fast disappearing stupor that had held me, Dr. Karnac’s deep voice came distinctly, saying,—
“If it continues, you are perfectly justified in doing so.”
“Doing what?” I demanded sharply, for the sound both roused and irritated me, I disliked the man so intensely.
“Nothing, my dear, nothing,” purred Mrs. Best, supporting me as I sat up, feeling weak and dazed, yet resolved to know what was going on. I was “a sad sight” indeed; my drenched hair hung about my shoulders, my dress was streaked with mud, one shoeless foot was red with blood, the other splashed and stained, and a white, wild-eyed face completed the ruinous image the opposite mirror showed me. Every thing looked blurred and strange, and a feverish unrest possessed me, for I was not one to subside easily after such a mental storm. Leaning on my arm, I scanned the room and its occupants with all the composure I could collect. The two women eyed me curiously yet pitifully; Dr. Karnac stood glancing at me furtively as he listened to my uncle, who spoke rapidly in Spanish as he showed the little scar upon his hand. That sight did more to restore me than the cordial just administered, and I rose erect, saying abruptly,—
“Please, everybody, go away; my head aches, and I want to be alone.”
“Let Janet stay and help you, dear; you are not fit,” began Mrs. Best; but I peremptorily stopped her.
“No, go yourself, and take her with you; I’m tired of so much stir about such foolish things as a broken glass and a girl in a pet.”
“You will be good enough to take this quieting draught before I go, Miss Sybil.”
“I shall do nothing of the sort, for I need only solitude and sleep to be perfectly well,” and I emptied the glass the doctor offered into the fire. He shrugged his shoulders with a disagreeable smile, and quietly began to prepare another draught, saying,—
“You are mistaken, my dear young lady; you need much care, and should obey, that your uncle may be spared further apprehension and anxiety.”
My patience gave out at this assumption of authority; and I determined to carry matters with a high hand, for they all stood watching me in a way which seemed the height of impertinent curiosity.
“He is not my uncle! never has been, and deserves neither respect nor obedience from me! I am the best judge of my own health, and you are not bettering it by contradiction and unnecessary fuss. This is my house, and you will oblige me by leaving it, Dr. Karnac; this is my room, and I insist on being left in peace immediately.”
I pointed to the door as I spoke; the women hurried out with scared faces; the doctor bowed and followed, but paused on the threshold, while my uncle approached me, asking in a tone inaudible to those still hovering round the door,—
“Do you still persist in your refusal, Sybil?”
“How dare you ask me that again? I tell you I had rather die than marry you!”
“The Lord be merciful to us! just hear how she’s going on now about marrying master. Ain’t it awful, Jane?” ejaculated Mrs. Best, bobbing her head in for a last look.
“Hold your tongue, you impertinent creature!” I called out; and the fat old soul bundled away in such comical haste I laughed, in spite of languor and vexation.
My uncle left, me, and I heard him say as he passed the doctor,—
“You see how it is.”
“Nothing uncommon; but that virulence is a bad symptom,” answered the Spaniard, and closing the door locked it, having dexterously removed the key from within.
I had never been subjected to restraint of any kind; it made me reckless at once, for this last indignity was not to be endured.
“Open this instantly!” I commanded, shaking the door. No one answered, and after a few ineffectual attempts to break the lock I left it, threw up the window and looked out; the ground was too far off for a leap, but the trellis where summer-vines had clung was strong and high, a step would place me on it, a moment’s agility bring me to the terrace below. I was now in just the state to attempt any rash exploit, for the cordial had both strengthened and excited me; my foot was bandaged, my clothes still wet; I could suffer no new damage, and have my own way at small cost. Out I crept, climbed safely down, and made my way to the lodge as I had at first intended. But Guy was not there; and, returning, I boldly went in at the great door, straight to the room where my uncle and the doctor were still talking.
“I wish the key of my room,” was my brief command. Both started as if I had been a ghost, and my uncle exclaimed,—
“You here! how in Heaven’s name came you out?”
“By the window. I am no child to be confined for a fit of anger. I will not submit to it; to-morrow I shall go to madame; till then I will be mistress in my own house. Give me the key, sir.”
“Shall I?” asked the doctor of my uncle, who nodded with a whispered,—
“Yes, yes; don’t excite her again.”
It was restored, and without another word I went loftily up to my room, locked myself in, and spent a restless, miserable night. When morning came, I breakfasted above stairs, and then busied myself packing trunks, burning papers, and collecting every trifle Guy had ever given me. No one annoyed me, and I saw only Janet, who had evidently received some order that kept her silent and respectful, though her face still betrayed the same curiosity and pitiful interest as the night before. Lunch was brought up, but I could not eat, and began to feel that the exposure, the fall, and excitement of the evening had left me weak and nervous, so I gave up the idea of going to madame till the morrow; and, as the afternoon waned, tried to sleep, yet could not, for I had sent a note to several of Guy’s haunts, imploring him to see me; but my messenger brought word that he was not to be found, and my heart was too heavy to rest.
When summoned to dinner, I still refused to go down; for I heard Dr. Karnac’s voice, and would not meet him, so I sent word that I wished the carriage early the following morning, and to be left alone till then. In a few minutes, back came Janet, with a glass of wine set forth on a silver salver, and a card with these words,—
“Forgive, forget, for your father’s sake, and drink with me, ‘Oblivion to the past.’”
It touched and softened me. I knew my uncle’s pride, and saw in this an entire relinquishment of the hopes I had so thoughtlessly fostered in his mind. I was passionate, but not vindictive. He had been kind, I very wilful. His mistake was natural, my resentment ungenerous. Though my resolution to go remained unchanged, I was sorry for my part in the affair; and remembering that through me his son was lost to him, I accepted his apology, drank his toast, and sent him back a dutiful “Good-night.”
I was unused to wine. The draught I had taken was powerful with age, and, though warm and racy to the palate, proved too potent for me. Still sitting before my fire, I slowly fell into a restless drowse, haunted by a dim dream that I was seeking Guy in a ship, whose motion gradually lulled me into perfect unconsciousness.
Waking at length, I was surprised to find myself in bed, with the shimmer of daylight peeping through the curtains. Recollecting that I was to leave early, I sprang up, took one step and remained transfixed with dismay, for the room was not my own! Utterly unfamiliar was every object on which my eyes fell. The place was small, plainly furnished, and close, as if long unused. My trunks stood against the wall, my clothes lay on a chair, and on the bed I had left trailed a fur-lined cloak I had often seen on my uncle’s shoulders. A moment I stared about me bewildered, then hurried to the window,—it was grated!
A lawn, sere and sodden, lay without, and a line of sombre firs hid the landscape beyond the high wall which encompassed the dreary plot. More and more alarmed, I flew to the door and found it locked. No bell was visible, no sound audible, no human presence near me, and an ominous foreboding thrilled cold through nerves and blood, as, for the first time, I felt the paralyzing touch of fear. Not long, however. My native courage soon returned, indignation took the place of terror, and excitement gave me strength. My temples throbbed with a dull pain, my eyes were heavy, my limbs weighed down by an unwonted lassitude, and my memory seemed strangely confused; but one thing was clear to me, I must see somebody, ask questions, demand explanations, and get away to madame without delay.
With trembling hands I dressed, stopping suddenly, with a cry; for, lifting my hands to my head, I discovered that my hair, my beautiful, abundant hair, was gone! There was no mirror in the room, but I could feel that it had been shorn away close about face and neck. This outrage was more than I could bear, and the first tears I shed fell for my lost charm. It was weak, perhaps, but I felt better for it, clearer in mind and readier to confront whatever lay before me. I knocked and called. Then, losing patience, shook and screamed; but no one came or answered me, and, wearied out at last, I sat down and cried again in impotent despair.
An hour passed, then a step approached, the key turned, and a hard-faced woman entered with a tray in her hand. I had resolved to be patient, if possible, and controlled myself to ask quietly, though my eyes kindled, and my voice trembled with resentment,—
“Where am I, and why am I here against my will?”
“This is your breakfast, miss; you must be sadly hungry,” was the only reply I got.
“I will never eat till you tell me what I ask.”
“Will you be quiet, and mind me if I do, miss?”
“You have no right to exact obedience from me, but I’ll try.”
“That’s right. Now all I know is that you are twenty miles from the Moors, and came because you are ill. Do you like sugar in your coffee?”
“When did I come? I don’t remember it.”
“Early this morning; you don’t remember because you were put to sleep before being fetched, to save trouble.”
“Ah, that wine! Who brought me here?”
“Dr. Karnac, miss.”
“Yes, miss; you were easier to manage asleep than awake, he said.”
I shook with anger, yet still restrained myself hoping to fathom the mystery of this nocturnal journey.
“What is your name, please?” I meekly asked.
“You can call me Hannah.”
“Well, Hannah, there is a strange mistake somewhere. I am not ill—you see I am not—and I wish to go away at once to the friend I was to meet to-day. Get me a carriage and have my baggage taken out.”
“It can’t be done, miss. We are a mile from town, and have no carriages here; besides, you couldn’t go if I had a dozen. I have my orders, and shall obey ’em.”
“But Dr. Karnac has no right to bring or keep me here.”
“Your uncle sent you. The doctor has the care of you, and that is all I know about it. Now I have kept my promise, do you keep yours, miss, and eat your breakfast, else I can’t trust you again.”
“But what is the matter with me? How can I be ill and not know or feel it?” I demanded, more and more bewildered.
“You look it, and that’s enough for them as is wise in such matters. You’d have had a fever, if it hadn’t been seen to in time.”
“Who cut my hair off?”
“I did; the doctor ordered it.”
“How dared he? I hate that man, and never will obey him.”
“Hush, miss, don’t clench your hands and look in that way, for I shall have to report every thing you say and do to him, and it won’t be pleasant to tell that sort of thing.”
The woman was civil, but grim and cool. Her eye was unsympathetic, her manner business-like, her tone such as one uses to a refractory child, half-soothing, half-commanding. I conceived a dislike to her at once, and resolved to escape at all hazards, for my uncle’s inexplicable movements filled me with alarm. Hannah had left my door open, a quick glance showed me another door also ajar at the end of a wide hall, a glimpse of green, and a gate. My plan was desperately simple, and I executed it without delay. Affecting to eat, I presently asked the woman for my handkerchief from the bed. She crossed the room to get it. I darted out, down the passage, along the walk, and tugged vigorously at the great bolt of the gate, but it was also locked. In despair I flew into the garden, but a high wall enclosed it on every side; and as I ran round and round, vainly looking for some outlet, I saw Hannah, accompanied by a man as gray and grim as herself, coming leisurely toward me, with no appearance of excitement or displeasure. Back I would not go; and, inspired with a sudden hope, swung myself into one of the firs that grew close against the wall. The branches snapped under me, the slender tree swayed perilously, but up I struggled, till the wide coping of the wall was gained. There I paused and looked back. The woman was hurrying through the gate to intercept my descent on the other side, and close behind me the man, sternly calling me to stop. I looked down; a stony ditch was below, but I would rather risk my life than tamely lose my liberty, and with a flying leap tried to reach the bank; failed, fell heavily among the stones, felt an awful crash, and then came an utter blank.
For many weeks I lay burning in a fever, fitfully conscious of Dr. Karnac and the woman’s presence; once I fancied I saw my uncle, but was never sure, and rose at last a shadow of my former self, feeling pitifully broken, both mentally and physically. I was in a better room now, wintry winds howled without, but a generous fire glowed behind the high closed fender, and books lay on my table.
I saw no one but Hannah, yet could wring no intelligence from her beyond what she had already told, and no sign of interest reached me from the outer world. I seemed utterly deserted and forlorn, my spirit was crushed, my strength gone, my freedom lost, and for a time I succumbed to despair, letting one day follow another without energy or hope. It is hard to live with no object to give zest to life, especially for those still blest with youth, and even in my prison-house I soon found one quite in keeping with the mystery that surrounded me.
As I sat reading by day or lay awake at night, I became aware that the room above my own was occupied by some inmate whom I never saw. A peculiar person it seemed to be; for I heard steps going to and fro, hour after hour, in a tireless march, that wore upon my nerves, as many a harsher sound would not have done. I could neither tease nor surprise Hannah into any explanation of the thing, and day after day I listened to it, till I longed to cover up my ears and implore the unknown walker to stop, for Heaven’s sake. Other sounds I heard and fretted over: a low monotonous murmur, as of some one singing a lullaby; a fitful tapping, like a cradle rocked on a carpetless floor; and at rare intervals cries of suffering, sharp but brief, as if forcibly suppressed. These sounds, combined with the solitude, the confinement, and the books I read, a collection of ghostly tales and weird fancies, soon wrought my nerves to a state of terrible irritability, and wore upon my health so visibly that I was allowed at last to leave my room.
The house was so well guarded that I soon relinquished all hope of escape, and listlessly amused myself by roaming through the unfurnished rooms and echoing halls, seldom venturing into Hannah’s domain; for there her husband sat, surrounded by chemical apparatus, poring over crucibles and retorts. He never spoke to me, and I dreaded the glance of his cold eye, for it looked unsoftened by a ray of pity at the little figure that sometimes paused a moment on his threshold, wan and wasted as the ghost of departed hope.
The chief interest of these dreary walks centred in the door of the room above my own, for a great hound lay before it, eying me savagely as he rejected all advances, and uttering his deep bay if I approached too near. To me this room possessed an irresistible fascination. I could not keep away from it by day, I dreamed of it by night, it haunted me continually, and soon became a sort of monomania, which I condemned, yet could not control, till at length I found myself pacing to and fro as those invisible feet paced over head. Hannah came and stopped me, and a few hours later Dr. Karnac appeared. I was so changed that I feared him with a deadly fear. He seemed to enjoy it; for in the pride of youth and beauty I had shown him contempt and defiance at my uncle’s, and he took an ungenerous satisfaction in annoying me by a display of power. He never answered my questions or entreaties, regarded me as being without sense or will, insisted on my trying various mixtures and experiments in diet, gave me strange books to read, and weekly received Hannah’s report of all that passed. That day he came, looked at me, said, “Let her walk,” and went away, smiling that hateful smile of his.
Soon after this I took to walking in my sleep, and more than once woke to find myself roving lampless through that haunted house in the dead of night. I concealed these unconscious wanderings for a time, but an ominous event broke them up at last, and betrayed them to Hannah.
I had followed the steps one day for several hours, walking below as they walked above; had peopled that mysterious room with every mournful shape my disordered fancy could conjure up; had woven tragical romances about it, and brooded over the one subject of interest my unnatural life possessed with the intensity of a mind upon which its uncanny influence was telling with perilous rapidity. At midnight I woke to find myself standing in a streak of moonlight, opposite the door whose threshold I had never crossed. The April night was warm, a single pane of glass high up in that closed door was drawn aside, as if for air; and, as I stood dreamily collecting my sleep-drunken senses, I saw a ghostly hand emerge and beckon, as if to me. It startled me broad awake, with a faint exclamation and a shudder from head to foot. A cloud swept over the moon, and when it passed the hand was gone, but shrill through the keyhole came a whisper that chilled me to the marrow of my bones, so terribly distinct and imploring was it.
“Find it! for God’s sake find it before it is too late!”
The hound sprang up with an angry growl; I heard Hannah leave her bed near by, and, with an inspiration strange as the moment, I paced slowly on with open eyes and lips apart, as I had seen “Amina” in the happy days when kind old madame took me to the theatre, whose mimic horrors I had never thought to equal with such veritable ones. Hannah appeared at her door with a light, but on I went in a trance of fear; for I was only kept from dropping in a swoon by the blind longing to fly from that spectral voice and hand. Past Hannah I went, she following; and, as I slowly laid myself in bed, I heard her say to her husband, who just then came up,—
“Sleep-walking, John; it’s getting worse and worse, as the doctor foretold; she’ll settle down like the other presently, but she must be locked up at night, else the dog will do her a mischief.”
The man yawned and grumbled; then they went, leaving me to spend hours of unspeakable suffering, which aged me more than years. What was I to find? where was I to look? and when would it be too late? These questions tormented me; for I could find no answers to them, divine no meaning, see no course to pursue. Why was I here? what motive induced my uncle to commit such an act? and when should I be liberated? were equally unanswerable, equally tormenting, and they haunted me like ghosts. I had no power to exorcise or forget. After that I walked no more, because I slept no more; sleep seemed scared away, and waking dreams harassed me with their terrors. Night after night I paced my room in utter darkness,—for I was allowed no lamp,—night after night I wept bitter tears wrung from me by anguish, for which I had no name; and night after night the steps kept time to mine, and the faint lullaby came down to me as if to soothe and comfort my distress. I felt that my health was going, my mind growing confused and weak, my thoughts wandered vaguely, memory began to fail, and idiocy or madness seemed my inevitable fate; but through it all my heart clung to Guy, yearning for him with a hunger that would not be appeased.
At rare intervals I was allowed to walk in the neglected garden, where no flowers bloomed, no birds sang, no companion came to me but surly John, who followed with his book or pipe, stopping when I stopped, walking when I walked, keeping a vigilant eye upon me, yet seldom speaking except to decline answering my questions. These walks did me no good, for the air was damp and heavy with vapors from the marsh; for the house stood near a half-dried lake, and hills shut it in on every side. No fresh winds from upland moor or distant ocean ever blew across the narrow valley; no human creature visited the place, and nothing but a vague hope that my birthday might bring some change, some help, sustained me. It did bring help, but of such an unexpected sort that its effects remained through all my after-life. My birthday came, and with it my uncle. I was in my room, walking restlessly,—for the habit was a confirmed one now,—when the door opened, and Hannah, Dr. Karnac, my uncle, and a gentleman whom I knew to be his lawyer, entered, and surveyed me as if I were a spectacle. I saw my uncle start and turn pale; I had never seen myself since I came, but, if I had not suspected that I was a melancholy wreck of my former self, I should have known it then, such sudden pain and pity softened his ruthless countenance for a single instant. Dr. Karnac’s eye had a magnetic power over me; I had always felt it, but in my present feeble state I dreaded, yet submitted to it with a helpless fear that should have touched his heart,—it was on me then, I could not resist it, and paused fixed and fascinated by that repellent yet potent glance. Hannah pointed to the carpet worn to shreds by my weary march, to the walls which I had covered with weird, grotesque, or tragic figures to while away the heavy hours, lastly to myself, mute, motionless, and scared, saying, as if in confirmation of some previous assertion,—
“You see, gentlemen, she is, as I said, quiet, but quite hopeless.”
I thought she was interceding for me; and, breaking from the bewilderment and fear that held me, I stretched my hands to them, crying with an imploring cry,—
“Yes, I am quiet! I am hopeless! Oh, have pity on me before this dreadful life kills me or drives me mad!”
Dr. Karnac came to me at once with a black frown, which I alone could see; I evaded him, and clung to Hannah, still crying frantically,—for this seemed my last hope,—
“Uncle, let me go! I will give you all I have, will never ask for Guy, will be obedient and meek if I may only go to madame and never hear the feet again, or see the sights that terrify me in this dreadful room. Take me out! for God’s sake take me out!”
My uncle did not answer me, but covered up his face with a despairing gesture, and hurried from the room; the lawyer followed, muttering pitifully, “Poor thing! poor thing!” and Dr. Karnac laughed the first laugh I had ever heard him utter as he wrenched Hannah from my grasp and locked me in alone. My one hope died then, and I resolved to kill myself rather than endure this life another month; for now it grew clear to me that they believed me mad, and death of the body was far more preferable than that of the mind. I think I was a little mad just then, but remember well the sense of peace that came to me as I tore strips from my clothing, braided them into a cord, hid it beneath my mattress, and serenely waited for the night. Sitting in the last twilight I thought to see in this unhappy world, I recollected that I had not heard the feet all day, and fell to pondering over the unusual omission. But, if the steps had been silent in that room, voices had not, for I heard a continuous murmur at one time: the tones of one voice were abrupt and broken, the other low, yet resonant, and that, I felt assured, belonged to my uncle. Who was he speaking to? what were they saying? should I ever know? and even then, with death before me, the intense desire to possess the secret filled me with its old unrest.
Night came at last; I heard the clock strike one, and, listening to discover if John still lingered up, I heard through the deep hush a soft grating in the room above, a stealthy sound that would have escaped ears less preternaturally alert than mine. Like a flash came the thought, “Some one is filing bars or picking locks: will the unknown remember me and let me share her flight?” The fatal noose hung ready, but I no longer cared to use it, for hope had come to nerve me with the strength and courage I had lost. Breathlessly I listened; the sound went on, stopped, a dead silence reigned; then something brushed against my door, and, with a suddenness that made me tingle from head to foot like an electric shock, through the keyhole came again that whisper, urgent, imploring, and mysterious,—
“Find it! for God’s sake find it before it is too late!” then fainter, as if breath failed, came the broken words, “The dog—a lock of hair—there is yet time.”
Eagerness rendered me forgetful of the secrecy I should preserve, and I cried aloud, “What shall I find? where shall I look?” My voice, sharpened by fear, rang shrilly through the house, Hannah’s quick tread rushed down the hall, something fell, then loud and long rose a cry that made my heart stand still, so helpless, so hopeless was its wild lament. I had betrayed and I could not save or comfort the kind soul who had lost liberty through me. I was frantic to get out, and beat upon my door in a paroxysm of impatience, but no one came; and all night long those awful cries went on above, cries of mortal anguish, as if soul and body were being torn asunder. Till dawn I listened, pent in that room which now possessed an added terror; till dawn I called, wept, and prayed, with mingled pity, fear, and penitence, and till dawn the agony of that unknown sufferer continued unabated. I heard John hurry to and fro, heard Hannah issue orders with an accent of human sympathy in her hard voice; heard Dr. Karnac pass and repass my door, and all the sounds of confusion and alarm in that once quiet house. With daylight all was still, a stillness more terrible than the stir; for it fell so suddenly, remained so utterly unbroken, that there seemed no explanation of it but the dread word death.
At noon Hannah, a shade paler, but grim as ever, brought me some food, saying she forgot my breakfast, and when I refused to eat, yet asked no questions, she bade me go into the garden and not fret myself over last night’s flurry. I went, and, passing down the corridor, glanced furtively at the door I never saw without a thrill; but I experienced a new sensation then, for the hound was gone, the door was open, and, with an impulse past control, I crept in and looked about me. It was a room like mine, the carpet worn like mine, the windows barred like mine; there the resemblance ended, for an empty cradle stood beside the bed, and on that bed, below a sweeping cover, stark and still a lifeless body lay. I was inured to fear now, and an unwholesome craving for new terrors seemed to have grown by what it fed on: an irresistible desire led me close, nerved me to lift the cover and look below,—a single glance,—then, with a cry as panic-stricken as that which rent the silence of the night, I fled away, for the face I saw was a pale image of my own. Sharpened by suffering, pallid with death, the features were familiar as those I used to see; the hair, beautiful and blonde as mine had been, streamed long over the pulseless breast, and on the hand, still clenched in that last struggle, shone the likeness of a ring I wore, a ring bequeathed me by my father. An awesome fancy that it was myself assailed me; I had plotted death, and, with the waywardness of a shattered mind, I recalled legends of spirits returning to behold the bodies they had left.
Glad now to seek the garden, I hurried down, but on the threshold of the great hall-door was arrested by the sharp crack of a pistol; and, as a little cloud of smoke dispersed, I saw John drop the weapon and approach the hound, who lay writhing on the bloody grass. Moved by compassion for the faithful brute whose long vigilance was so cruelly repaid, I went to him, and, kneeling there, caressed the great head that never yielded to my touch before. John assumed his watch at once, and leaning against a tree cleaned the pistol, content that I should amuse myself with the dying creature, who looked into my face with eyes of almost human pathos and reproach. The brass collar seemed to choke him as he gasped for breath, and, leaning nearer to undo it, I saw, half hidden in his own black hair, a golden lock wound tightly round the collar, and so near its color as to be unobservable, except upon a close inspection. No accident could have placed it there; no head but mine in that house wore hair of that sunny hue,—yes, one other, and my heart gave a sudden leap as I remembered the shining locks just seen on that still bosom.
“Find it—the dog—the lock of hair,” rung in my ears, and swift as light came the conviction that the unknown help was found at last. The little band was woven close, I had no knife, delay was fatal, I bent my head as if lamenting over the poor beast and bit the knot apart, drew out a folded paper, hid it in my hand, and rising strolled leisurely back to my own room, saying I did not care to walk till it was warmer. With eager eyes I examined my strange treasure-trove; it consisted of two strips of thinnest paper, without address or signature, one almost illegible, worn at the edges and stained with the green rust of the collar; the other fresher, yet more feebly written, both abrupt and disjointed, but terribly significant to me. This was the first,—
“I have never seen you, never heard your name, yet I know that you are young, that you are suffering, and I try to help you in my poor way. I think you are not crazed yet, as I often am; for your voice is sane, your plaintive singing not like mine, your walking only caught from me, I hope. I sing to lull the baby whom I never saw; I walk to lessen the long journey that will bring me to the husband I have lost,—stop! I must not think of those things or I shall forget. If you are not already mad, you will be; I suspect you were sent here to be made so; for the air is poison, the solitude is fatal, and Karnac remorseless in his mania for prying into the mysteries of human minds. What devil sent you I may never know, but I long to warn you. I can devise no way but this; the dog comes into my room sometimes, you sometimes pause at my door and talk to him; you may find the paper I shall hide about his collar. Read, destroy, but obey it. I implore you to leave this house before it is too late.”
The other paper was as follows:—
“I have watched you, tried to tell you where to look, for you have not found my warning yet, though I often tie it there and hope. You fear the dog, perhaps, and my plot fails; yet I know by your altered step and voice that you are fast reaching my unhappy state; for I am fitfully mad, and shall be till I die. To-day I have seen a familiar face; it seems to have calmed and strengthened me, and, though he would not help you, I shall make one desperate attempt. I may not find you, so leave my warning to the hound, yet hope to breathe a word into your sleepless ear that shall send you back into the world the happy thing you should be. Child! woman! whatever you are, leave this accursed house while you have power to do it.”
That was all; I did not destroy the papers, but I obeyed them, and for a week watched and waited till the propitious instant came. I saw my uncle, the doctor, and two others, follow the poor body to its grave beside the lake, saw all depart but Dr. Karnac, and felt redoubled hatred and contempt for the men who could repay my girlish slights with such a horrible revenge. On the seventh day, as I went down for my daily walk, I saw John and Dr. Karnac so deep in some uncanny experiment that I passed out unguarded. Hoping to profit by this unexpected chance, I sprang down the steps, but the next moment dropped half-stunned upon the grass; for behind me rose a crash, a shriek, a sudden blaze that flashed up and spread, sending a noisome vapor rolling out with clouds of smoke and flame. Aghast, I was just gathering myself up, when Hannah fled out of the house, dragging her husband senseless and bleeding, while her own face was ashy with affright. She dropped her burden beside me, saying, with white lips and a vain look for help where help was not,—
“Something they were at has burst, killed the doctor, and fired the house! Watch John till I get help, and leave him at your peril!” then flinging open the gate she sped away.
“Now is my time,” I thought, and only waiting till she vanished, I boldly followed her example, running rapidly along the road in an opposite direction, careless of bonnetless head and trembling limbs, intent only upon leaving that prison-house far behind me. For several hours I hurried along that solitary road; the spring sun shone, birds sang in the blooming hedges, green nooks invited me to pause and rest, but I heeded none of them, steadily continuing my flight, till spent and footsore I was forced to stop a moment by a wayside spring. As I stooped to drink, I saw my face for the first time in many months, and started to see how like that dead one it had grown, in all but the eternal peace which made that beautiful in spite of suffering and age. Standing thus and wondering if Guy would know me, should we ever meet, the sound of wheels disturbed me. Believing them to be coming from the place I had left, I ran desperately down the hill, turned a sharp corner, and before I could check myself passed a carriage slowly ascending. A face sprang to the window, a voice cried “Stop!” but on I flew, hoping the traveller would let me go unpursued. Not so, however; soon I heard fleet steps following, gaining rapidly, then a hand seized me, a voice rang in my ears, and with a vain struggle I lay panting in my captor’s hold, fearing to look up and meet a brutal glance. But the hand that had seized me tenderly drew me close, the voice that had alarmed cried joyfully,—
“Sybil, it is Guy! lie still, poor child, you are safe at last.”
Then I knew that my surest refuge was gained, and, too weak for words, clung to him in an agony of happiness, which brought to his kind eyes the tears I could not shed.
The carriage returned; Guy took me in, and for a time cared only to soothe and sustain my worn soul and body with the cordial of his presence, as we rolled homeward through a blooming world, whose beauty I had never truly felt before. When the first tumult of emotion had subsided, I told the story of my captivity and my escape, ending with a passionate entreaty not to be returned to my uncle’s keeping, for henceforth there could be neither affection nor respect between us.
“Fear nothing, Sybil; madame is waiting for you at the Moors, and my father’s unfaithful guardianship has ended with his life.”
Then with averted face and broken voice Guy went on to tell his father’s purposes, and what had caused this unexpected meeting. The facts were briefly these: The knowledge that my father had come between him and a princely fortune had always rankled in my uncle’s heart, chilling the ambitious hopes he cherished even in his boyhood, and making life an eager search for pleasure in which to drown his vain regrets. This secret was suspected by my father, and the household league was formed as some atonement for the innocent offence. It seemed to soothe my uncle’s resentful nature, and as years went on he lived freely, assured that ample means would be his through his son. Luxurious, self-indulgent, fond of all excitements, and reckless in their pursuit, he took no thought for the morrow till a few months before his return. A gay winter in Paris reduced him to those straits of which women know so little; creditors were oppressive, summer friends failed him, gambling debts harassed him, his son reproached him, and but one resource remained, Guy’s speedy marriage with the half-forgotten heiress. The boy had been educated to regard this fate as a fixed fact, and submitted, believing the time to be far distant; but the sudden summons came, and he rebelled against it, preferring liberty to love. My uncle pacified the claimants by promises to be fulfilled at my expense, and hurried home to press on the marriage, which now seemed imperative. I was taken to my future home, approved by my uncle, beloved by my cousin, and, but for my own folly, might have been a happy wife on that May morning when I listened to this unveiling of the past. My mother had been melancholy mad since that unhappy rumor of my father’s death; this affliction had been well concealed from me, lest the knowledge should prey upon my excitable nature and perhaps induce a like misfortune. I believed her dead, yet I had seen her, knew where her solitary grave was made, and still carried in my bosom the warning she had sent me, prompted by the unerring instinct of a mother’s heart. In my father’s will a clause was added just below the one confirming my betrothal, a clause decreeing that, if it should appear that I inherited my mother’s malady, the fortune should revert to my cousin, with myself a mournful legacy, to be cherished by him whether his wife or not. This passage, and that relating to my freedom of choice, had been omitted in the copy shown me on the night when my seeming refusal of Guy had induced his father to believe that I loved him, to make a last attempt to keep the prize by offering himself, and, when that failed, to harbor a design that changed my little comedy into the tragical experience I have told.
Dr. Karnac’s exclamation had caused the recollection of that clause respecting my insanity to flash into my uncle’s mind,—a mind as quick to conceive as fearless to execute. I unconsciously abetted the stratagem, and Dr. Karnac was an unscrupulous ally, for love of gain was as strong as love of science; both were amply gratified, and I, poor victim, was given up to be experimented upon, till by subtle means I was driven to the insanity which would give my uncle full control of my fortune and my fate. How the black plot prospered has been told; but retribution speedily overtook them both, for Dr. Karnac paid his penalty by the sudden death that left his ashes among the blackened ruins of that house of horrors, and my uncle had preceded him. For before the change of heirs could be effected my mother died, and the hours spent in that unhealthful spot insinuated the subtle poison of the marsh into his blood; years of pleasure left little vigor to withstand the fever, and a week of suffering ended a life of generous impulses perverted, fine endowments wasted, and opportunities for ever lost. When death drew near, he sent for Guy (who, through the hard discipline of poverty and honest labor, was becoming a manlier man), confessed all, and implored him to save me before it was too late. He did, and when all was told, when each saw the other by the light of this strange and sad experience,—Guy poor again, I free, the old bond still existing, the barrier of misunderstanding gone,—it was easy to see our way, easy to submit, to 350forgive, forget, and begin anew the life these clouds had darkened for a time.
Home received me, kind madame welcomed me, Guy married me, and I was happy; but over all these years, serenely prosperous, still hangs for me the shadow of the past, still rises that dead image of my mother, still echoes that spectral whisper in the dark.
1. “Thy ominous tongue gives utterance to thy wish.”
You may also enjoy reading Alcott's journal entries and letters conveying her thoughts on this story and others, as well as her collection of poems, in Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals.