THE FATAL LETTER
Julia and Fanny had been gone from home about four weeks when Mr. Middleton suddenly determined "to go and see his gals" and bring them home. Accordingly he "fixed up right smart," as he thought, which meant that he took off his beard and put on "a bran new pair of jeens." He preferred driving his own carriage, so he set off alone for Frankfort.
It was Friday morning, and as his daughters were in school, he stalked into Mrs. Crane's parlor to wait for them. Spying the piano, he sat down to it, and commenced producing a series of unearthly sounds, not altogether unlike the fashionable music of the present day. Mrs. Carrington chanced to be crossing the hall and, hearing the noise from the parlor, looked in. As her eye fell upon the strange-looking, giant form of Mr. Middleton, she uttered a very delicate scream, and as she just then saw Dr. Lacey entering the house, she staggered back a few paces, and tried to faint very gracefully. But the doctor caught her in his arms just in time to restore her to consciousness!
Mr. Middleton now came toward them, exclaiming, "Lightning guns! What's to pay now? Skeered at me, are you, madam or miss, whichever you be? I won't hurt a har of your soft skull!"
"Ugh-u-u!" said Mrs. Carrington, shrinking from him in disgust, as he advanced toward her, and laid his large hand on her head, "just to see," as he said, "if she were made of anything besides jewelry, curls and paint."
At this allusion to her brilliant color, Mrs. Carrington relieved Dr. Lacey from the delightful duty of supporting her, and disappeared up the stairs, saying in no very gentle tones, "What an old brute!"
"Fire away thar," called our Mr. Middleton. "I am an old brute, I suppose."
"But your right name is Mr. Middleton, I conclude," said Dr. Lacey.
Mr. Middleton started and answered, "How d'ye know that? Just as you'd know his satanic majesty, if he should appear to you?"
"Something upon that principle," said Dr. Lacey, laughing, "but," he continued, "I am glad to see you, Mr. Middleton. I suppose you have come to visit your daughters."
"Yes, and to take them home and let their mother and the rest of the blacks see them," answered Mr. Middleton; then after a pause he added, "They'll be right glad to see me, I reckon, or at least Sunshine will."
"Who is Sunshine?" asked Dr. Lacey.
"Well, now," said Mr. Middleton, "here you've lived with 'em four weeks and don't know that I call one Tempest and t'other Sunshine, and if you've any wit, you'll know which is Sunshine."
Just then a voice was heard to exclaim, "There, I told you father was here. I hear him now talking about Sunshine," and Fanny rushed in, and throwing her arms around her father's neck, kissed again and again his rough cheek, while he suddenly felt the need of his red and yellow cotton handkerchief, and muttered something about the "roads" being so infernal dusty that they made a fellow's eyes smart!
Then turning to Julia, who still stood in the door, he said, "Come, Tempest, none of your pranks! Come here and shake your old pap's paw. You needn't be afeared of this young spark, for he knows I'm your pap, and he hain't laughed at me neither." So Julia advanced and shook her father's hand with a tolerably good grace.
"I'm come for you to go home and see the folks," said Mr. Middleton; "so you pick up your duds--and mind not to take a cussed bandbox--and after dinner we'll start for home."
"It wants an hour of dinner time," said Julia, "and as we are not hungry, we can start in a few moments, if you like."
"Fury-ation," said Mr. Middleton, "I wonder if we can. Well, start on then afoot, if you're in such a hurry. I shan't budge an inch till I've had my dinner; besides, I want to see Mr. Wilmot."
Julia saw that she must submit to the mortification of seeing her father at Mrs. Crane's dinner table, and with a beating heart she heard the bell summon them to the dining room. Mrs. Carrington did not appear--her nerves had received too great a shock--and for that Julia was thankful. Dr. Lacey sat by her father and paid him every possible attention.
"Will you take soup, Mr. Middleton?" asked Mrs. Crane.
"What kind of soup? Beef soup, or mud turkle?"
"It is vermicelli," said Mrs. Crane, hardly able to keep her face straight.
"Vermifuge--vermifuge," repeated Mr. Middleton. "That's almighty queer stuff to make soup on. No. I'm 'bleeged to you; I ain't in need of that ar medicine."
Julia reddened, while Fanny burst into a laugh and said, "Father isn't much used to French soups, I think."
"Use your napkin, father," softly whispered Julia.
"What shall I use that for?" said he. "My trousers are all tobacco spit now, and grease won't hurt 'em any now. Halloo! Here waiter, bring me a decent fork, for Lord knows I can't eat with this here shovel and if I take my fingers Tempest'll raise a row de dow."
The servant looked at his mistress, who said, "Samuel, bring Mr. Middleton a steel fork."
When the dessert was brought in Mr. Middleton again exclaimed, as he took his plate of pudding, "Now what can this be?"
"It is tapioca pudding," said Mrs. Crane.
"Tap-an-oakky," returned Mr. Middleton. "Well, if you don't have the queerest things to eat! You ought to come to my house. We don't have any your chicken fixin's nor little three-cornered hankerchers laid out at each plate."
At last, to Julia's great relief, dinner was over, and she got her father started for home. Suddenly Mr. Middleton exclaimed, "That ar doctor is a mighty fine chap. Why don't you set your cap for him, Sunshine?"
"It would be of no use, father," answered Fanny.
"Wall, if I'm not mistaken, he's laid his snare for a bird, and I don't care how soon you fall into it, darling," said Mr. Middleton.
"How ridiculous!" exclaimed Julia.
"Ho now, jealous, are you, Tempest?" said her father. "What in thunder do you think he'll want of you, who are engaged to Mr. Wilmot?"
This was a truth which had troubled Julia, and she greatly regretted her engagement, for she well knew Dr. Lacey never would think of her as long as he thought she belonged to another. She had watched with a jealous eye the growing intimacy between him and Fanny, and resolved to leave no means untried to prevent a union between them, and to secure the doctor for herself. To do this she knew she must break her engagement with Mr. Wilmot, and also give Dr. Lacey a bad opinion of her sister. She felt sure of success, for when did she undertake anything and fail? Sinful girl! She was freed from her engagement in a way she little dreamed of.
Four weeks from the time of her first visit home, word came that Mr. Wilmot was sick and would not be able to teach that day. He had been unwell for several days, and next morning it was announced that he had the typhoid fever. Fanny's first impulse was to go and see him, but Julia prevented her by saying that he would send for her when he wanted her.
That evening Dr. Lacey told Julia that Mr. Wilmot had expressed a wish to see her. She went rather unwillingly, and something in her manner must have betrayed it, for he seemed troubled, and regarded her with an anxious look. She however manifested no affection, and but very little interest for him, and inwardly resolved that when she came again her sister should accompany her. That night he grew worse, and as there was of course no school, Julia hired some one to take herself and sister home. Earnestly did Fanny entreat her to remain and watch over Mr. Wilmot.
"I shall do no such thing," said Julia. "It would not be proper, and I should be talked about."
"Well, then," said Fanny, "I shall stay till mother sends for me. I do not care if I am talked about."
This rather pleased Julia, who said, "Well, you can stay if you like. I dare say you care more for him than I do, and you can tell him so, if you please."
"Oh, Julia," said Fanny, "what has changed you so toward Mr. Wilmot?"
"Nothing in particular," replied Julia. "I never liked him very much."
So Julia started for home, while Fanny took her station by the bedside of her beloved teacher. When Julia reached home, she found that her father had left the day before for Missouri. He owned land there, and as he had gone to make some improvements on it, he would probably be absent two months. Julia carelessly told her mother of Mr. Wilmot's illness, and that Fanny had stayed to watch him. When Mrs. Middleton heard this, her maternal fears were roused lest her daughter should take the fever, and in a few days she went herself to Frankfort to bring Fanny home.
She found Mr. Wilmot very ill, but not as yet dangerously so, and after staying a day, she announced her intention of taking Fanny home.
"Why not leave her?" said Dr. Lacey. "She seems peculiarly adapted to a sick room, and will do him more good than a dozen physicians."
"Yes, let her stay," said Mr. Wilmot, and drawing Mrs. Middleton closely to him, he whispered, "Tell Julia to come to me, will you?"
Mrs. Middleton promised that she would, but persisted in taking Fanny. When Mr. Wilmot's message was given to Julia, she said, "No, indeed, I'll not go. I could do him no good."
Ike was sent to Frankfort every day to inquire after Mr. Wilmot, and see if anything was wanted, and each night Fanny waited anxiously for his return. As soon as she saw him enter the wood, she would run to him, and inquire for Mr. Wilmot. Julia, however, manifested no anxiety whatever. She would not have acknowledged that she hoped he would die, and yet each time that she heard he was better her spirits sank, for fear he would yet live. At last Ike brought to Fanny the joyful intelligence that the crisis was passed, and Mr. Wilmot was out of danger.
That night, in the solitude of her chamber, Julia communed with herself as follows: "And so he'll live after all. Well, I may as well let him know at once that I will not marry him." So saying, she opened her portfolio, and wrote the following note:
"Sir--When I became engaged to you I was very young and am still so; consequently, you will hardly be surprised when you learn that I have changed my mind and wish to have our engagement dissolved.
"Yours truly, as a friend,
Ike did not go to Frankfort again for two or three days, but when he did, he was the bearer of this heartless note. Mr. Wilmot was indeed better and when he heard Ike was in the house he expressed a desire to see him, as he wished to send some word to Julia. When Ike was ushered into the sick room, he immediately handed his young mistress' letter to Mr. Wilmot, who eagerly took it, for he recognized the handwriting of his idol. Hastily breaking the seal, he read twice the cruel lines before he was convinced that he read aright; then the paleness on his cheek grew paler, and was succeeded by a deep flush.
When Ike asked what he should tell the folks at home, Mr. Wilmot's voice was husky as he answered, "Nothing, Ike, tell them nothing." Ike was alarmed at the change which had come over his young master, and called for assistance.
From that time Mr. Wilmot hourly grew worse. Mrs. Middleton was sent for, and a telegram was forwarded to his friends in New York, bidding them come soon if they would see him alive. Mr. Miller, who was teaching in a distant part of the country, dismissed his school to attend his dying friend. It was heartrending to hear Mr. Wilmot in his delirium, call for Julia to come to him--to let him look on her face once more before he died. Then he would fancy himself at home and would describe Julia to his sister in all the passionate fervor of a devoted lover; then he would think it was Julia who was sick, and would beg of those around him to save her, and not let his loved one die. At last Mrs. Middleton could bear his pleadings no longer. She resolved to go home and persuade her hard-hearted daughter, if possible, to go to the dying man.
Just before she was ready to leave, consciousness returned to him for a few moments, and calling her to his bedside, he asked her where she was going. On being told he replied, "Mrs. Middleton, I am dying. When you return I shall not be in this world; but I know that my Redeemer liveth, and I am not afraid to die, for I feel assured of rest beyond the grave; but there is one thing I would have. Ere I go hence I would see Julia once more. I have loved her perhaps too well, and for this I must die. Tell, oh tell her, how I missed her when the fever scorched my brow, and bid her hasten to me ere it be too late! But if she will not come, give her my blessing, and tell her my last prayer was for her, and that in Heaven she will be mine."
With many tears Mrs. Middleton promised him that every word of his message should be delivered to Julia, and that she should come to him. On reaching home her swollen eyelids attracted Fanny's attention, and excited her fear. Springing up, she exclaimed, "Mother, mother, how is Mr. Wilmot? Is he dead?"
"No," answered her mother, "he is not dead, but is dying."
Then she repeated to Julia his request, and added, "You had better go immediately, if you wish to see him alive, for he cannot live until morning. Fanny will call Ike to go with you."
Fanny arose to do her mother's bidding, but Julia stopped her by saying, "You needn't trouble yourself to call him, Fanny."
"Why not?" said Fanny, looking wonderingly in Julia's face.
"Because I am not going," said Julia coolly.
"Not going!" exclaimed Fanny.
"Not going!" echoed Mrs. Middleton. "Why do you say so? You are going, you must go!"
"There is no must about it," answered Julia; "I do not choose to go, and I shall not go!"
"Are you in earnest, Julia?" asked Mrs. Middleton.
"As much in earnest as I ever was in my life," replied Julia.
"Well, then," returned the mother in a decided tone, "you shall go; I command you to go, and I must be obeyed!"
"I'd like to see your commands enforced, Madam," said Julia, her beautiful face dark with rage. "Yes, I'd like to see anybody make me go if I did not wish to. Mr. Wilmot is nothing to me, and I would hardly go to save his life."
"Oh, Julia, Julia!" said Mrs. Middleton bitterly, "has it come to this? I can see it all now!"
"What all can you see so distinctly?" asked Julia scornfully.
"I can understand what part you have had in causing Mr. Wilmot's death," answered Mrs. Middleton.
Julia turned ashy pale, and her mother continued--"Often in his ravings he spoke of a letter, a cruel letter he called it, and I heard it hinted that it was the receipt of that letter which brought on a relapse. Now you will tell me whether you wrote that letter, and if so, what were its contents?"
"I wonder how I'm expected to know what letter you mean," said Julia. "However, I did write to him and ask to be released from my engagement, and I had my reasons for so doing."
Mrs. Middleton sighed and said, "It is as I feared; on you, Julia, rests in a measure the cause of his death."
"Better call me a murderer at once. But I'll not stay for more abuse," said Julia, as she left the room.
When she was gone Mrs. Middleton buried her face in her hands, and sent forth sob after sob from her crushed heart--crushed by the sinfulness and mocking disobedience of her first born. While she was still weeping, Fanny stole softly from the apartment and went in quest of her sister. She found her, as she had expected, in her room, and going up to her threw her arms around her neck, and plead long and earnestly that she would go to Mr. Wilmot. But Julia's answer was ever the same, "No, I will not."
"And why will you not?" asked Fanny.
"Because," replied Julia, "Mr. Wilmot is nothing to me, and there is no reason why I should go to him, more than to any other lovesick youth who takes a fancy to send for me. You would not feel obliged to run if Bill Jeffrey should have the measles and send for you."
"Oh, stop, stop," said Fanny, "you shall not liken Bill Jeffrey to Mr. Wilmot, who is so good, so noble. You loved him once, and for the sake of that love go to him now; it can do you no harm."
"It would seriously affect my plans for the future; and once for all, I tell you I will not go," replied Julia.
"Then I will," said Fanny, "and show him that I, at least, have not forgotten him."
This idea pleased Julia, and she answered, "I wish you would, for your presence will do as much good as mine."
Fanny hastily ran down stairs and, going to her mother, said, "Mother, Julia will not go, but I will. I should like to very much. Will you let me?"
Mrs. Middleton was too much engrossed in her painful thoughts to give much heed to what Fanny said. She only knew that she wished her to consent to something, and she mechanically answered, "Yes, yes, go." It was then after sunset, and as the sky had all day been cloudy, darkness was fast gathering over the earth, but Fanny heeded it not. She bade Ike make haste, and in a few moments her favorite pony was saddled. Ike's horse was then got in readiness, and they were soon galloping off in the direction of Frankfort. 'Twas a long ride of twelve miles and the darkness increased every moment, while a steady, drizzling rain commenced falling. Still Fanny kept perseveringly on, occasionally speaking an encouraging word to Ike, who pulled his old cap closely over his ears and muttered, "Lord bless young miss. Seems like 'twas her was done promised to young marster, a puttin' out this desput night to see him."
But Fanny kept her thoughts to herself, and while she is making her way to Frankfort, we will precede her and see what is taking place in the sick room. The large drops of sweat which stood upon Mr. Wilmot's high, white forehead, showed that the hour of dissolution was at hand. His mind was wandering, but still the burden of his soul was, "Julia, Julia, oh, will she not come?" Mr. Miller stood by him and endeavored as far as possible to quiet him, and once, during a lucid interval, he asked, "If Julia does not come, what shall I tell her when I see her?"
Mr. Wilmot's eyes opened wide and for a moment he looked wistfully at his friend, and then said mournfully, "I cannot see you, Joseph, my vision has departed forever, and if Julia comes, I cannot now look on her loved features, but if I die ere she arrives, ask her if she wrote that letter."
Just then there was a noise without, and the sound of horses' feet was heard coming up the graveled walk. Some one in the room whispered, "It must be Miss Middleton." The sound caught the dying man's ear and he wildly exclaimed, "Has she come? Oh! Has she come?" Fanny was now heard speaking in the hall. We have said that her voice was strangely like her sister's, so it was no wonder that Mr. Wilmot, in his feverish delirium, mistook it. Clasping his hands together, he exclaimed, "Thank God she has come! She has come!"
The excitement was too much for him and for a few moments he was unconscious. When at last animation was restored, Fanny was hanging over his pillow, and Fanny's tears were upon his cheek; but he thought it was Julia, and drawing her to him, he imprinted a burning kiss upon her fair brow, saying, "God bless you for coming, precious Julia, I knew you would come; and now tell me, do you not love me as well as you always have?"
Fanny was bewildered, and looked imploringly at Mr. Miller, who said, "Richard, do you think it is Julia who is standing by you now?" The sick man gave a startled look and almost shrieked out, "Julia? Yes, is it not Julia? Speak quick and tell me, isn't Julia here?" Mr. Miller's eyes filled with tears as he answered sadly, "No, Richard, Julia is not here; it is Fanny who has come." A deathly paleness passed over Mr. Wilmot's face and a paroxysm of delirium ensued more violent than any which had preceded it. At last it partially passed off and he became comparatively calm, but still persisted in thinking it was Julia whose hand he held in his and whose breath was upon his cheek. "Heaven bless you for coming, beloved one," he would say, "I knew you would come, and still the dreadful thought has haunted me, that you might be false, for that was a cruel letter; but you did not write it, did you?"
Fanny answered through her tears, "No, Mr. Wilmot, I did not write it. It is Fanny who is speaking to you." But Mr. Wilmot understood only the first part of what she said, and continued, "I knew you did not, I am satisfied now to die; and yet 'tis hard to die when I am so young and so far from home, but it is sweet to know that I have your love to the last. When I am dead, you will tell them at home how I loved and prayed for them. My mother will weep bitterly for her son, who died so far away, but she does not love me as well as you do, does she, dearest?"
Just then Dr. Lacey entered the room. He seemed surprised to see Fanny there, and to hear the words of endearment addressed to her by Mr. Wilmot, but Mr. Miller softly told him of the mistake. This seemed to satisfy him, but he anxiously noted every change of Fanny's countenance. At last Mr. Wilmot said, "If you did not write that letter, who did? Was it, could it have been your sister?"
"Oh, no! No!" said Fanny, "I did not write it."
"I know you did not, dearest," said he; "you would not do such a thing, but who did? I cannot think it was Fanny, who was always so gentle, so guileless."
Poor Fanny! She felt that her beloved teacher was dying with a suspicion of her innocence, and she wept most bitterly. At last a change passed over Mr. Wilmot's face, a change which showed that the last trying moment had come. It frequently occurs with dying persons that at the last their faculties are for a moment fully restored. So it was with Mr. Wilmot. A bright smile broke over his face and looking up at Mr. Miller, he said, "I thank my Heavenly Father I can see again. Now, where is Julia? I would look on her face once more."
"I told you," said Mr. Miller, "that you were mistaken; it is not Julia."
"Not Julia!" said Mr. Wilmot, again becoming delirious. "Not Julia! It cannot be true." Then drawing Fanny toward him he looked earnestly in her face. Slowly the bitter truth broke over his mind, and he said, "Yes, I was mistaken! But I bless you for coming; but Julia, my too dearly loved Julia--she is not here. Oh, if I can never see her in this world, shall I see her in heaven?"
They were the last words he ever uttered. Falling back on his pillow, he drew Fanny's face to his, and with his last breath kissed her quivering lips, and all was over. Sadly Mr. Miller closed the eyes of his departed friend, and smoothing the covering about him, left him to the care of the servants. A few hours later, Fanny entered the room with Dr. Lacey, again to look on the face of Mr. Wilmot. The sun was just rising, and its first red rays fell upon the marble features of the dead. There was on his face an expression so calm and heavenly that Fanny held her breath while looking at him, lest she should disturb his peaceful repose. At length she kissed his cold forehead, and silently left the room which contained the pale sleeper.
In the course of a few hours she returned home, bearing the sad tidings, which was received by her mother with a burst of tears; but Julia preserved the same indifference which had been manifested throughout all Mr. Wilmot's illness. Hard-hearted as she was, there came a time in after years when that proud head was bowed with grief, and those dark eyes were bedimmed by tears of penitence, which could not atone for the past; for they were of no avail to bring back the dead from their silent resting place.