LETTERS WRITTEN BUT NEVER RECEIVED
In order to keep the threads of our narrative connected, it is necessary that we go back for a time, and again open the scene in Frankfort, on the 24th of March, several days after the party, at which Florence Woodburn met Fanny Middleton. Seated at her work table, in one of the upper rooms of Mrs. Crane's boarding house, is our old friend, Kate Miller. Her dazzling beauty seems enhanced by the striking contrast between the clearness of her complexion and the sable of her robe.
On a low stool, at her feet, sits Fanny. Her head is resting on Mrs. Miller's lap, and she seems to be sleeping. She has been excused from school this afternoon, on account of a sick, nervous headache, to which she has recently been frequently subject. Finding the solitude of her own chamber rather irksome, she had sought Mrs. Miller's room, where she was ever a welcome visitor. To Kate she had imparted a knowledge of the letter which she supposed Dr. Lacey had written.
Mrs. Miller's sympathy for her young friend was as deep and sincere as was her resentment against the supposed author of this letter. As yet, she had kept Fanny's secret inviolate, and not even her husband had ever suspected the cause of Fanny's failing strength. But, this afternoon, as she looked on the fair girl's sad, white face, which seemed to grow whiter and thinner each day, she felt her heart swell with indignation toward one who had wrought this fearful change. "Surely," thought she, "if Dr. Lacey could know the almost fatal consequence of his faithlessness he would relent; and he must, he shall know it. I will tell Mr. Miller and he I know will write immediately." Then came the thought that she had promised not to betray Fanny's confidence; but she did not despair of gaining her consent, that Mr. Miller should also know the secret.
For a time Fanny slept on sweetly and quietly; then she moved uneasily in her slumber, and finally awoke.
"How is your head now?" asked Mrs. Miller, at the same time smoothing the disordered ringlets which lay in such profusion over her lap.
"Oh, much better," said Fanny. "I had a nice sleep, and so pleasant dreams, too."
"Did you dream of him?" asked Mrs. Miller, in a low tone.
Quick as thought the crimson tide stained Fanny's cheek and forehead, but she answered, somewhat bitterly, "Oh, no, no! I never dream of him now, and I am trying hard to forget him. I do not think I love him half as well now as I once thought I did."
Poor little Fanny! How deceived she was! After a time Mrs. Miller said, "Fanny, Mr. Miller seems very anxious about your altered and languid appearance. May I not tell him the truth? He will sympathize with you as truly as I do; for he feels for you almost the affection of a brother."
At first Fanny objected. "I know," said she, "that Mr. Miller would only think me a weak, silly girl." Mrs. Miller, however, finally gained permission to tell everything to her husband. "I know, though," persisted Fanny, "that he will laugh at me. You say he likes me; I know he did once; but since the time when he visited my father's, more than a year ago, he has not treated me with the same confidence he did before. I never knew the reason, unless it was that foolish, romping mistake which I made one afternoon by riding into the schoolhouse!"
With many tears and some laughing--for the remembrance of the exploit always excited her mirth--Fanny told a part of what we already know concerning Mr. Miller's visit at her father's the winter previous. She related the adventure of the sled ride, and said that the morning after she noticed a change in Mr. Miller's manner toward her. The unsuspecting girl little thought what was the true reason of that change.
While she was yet speaking, Mr. Miller entered the room. On seeing Fanny there, and weeping, he said: "What, Sunshine in tears? That is hardly the remedy I would prescribe for headache. But come, Fanny, tell me what is the matter."
"Oh, I cannot, I cannot!" said Fanny, and again she buried her face in Kate's lap.
Mr. Miller looked inquiringly at his wife, who had not yet ceased laughing at Fanny's ludicrous description of her sled ride; but overcoming her merriment, she at length found voice to say, "Fanny is crying because she thinks you do not like her as well as you used to."
Kate had never dreamed that her husband had once felt more than a brother's love for the weeping girl before her, and she did not know what pain her words inflicted on his noble heart. Neither did she think there was the least ground for Fanny's supposition, and she desired her husband to say so.
"I cannot say so and tell the truth," said Mr. Miller, "but I can assure you that Bill Jeffrey's sled had nothing to do with it."
"What was it then?" asked Kate and Fanny, both in the same breath.
Mr. Miller drew Fanny toward him with the freedom of an elder brother, and, in a low, earnest tone, said: "Did nothing else occur during my visit, which could have changed my opinion of you?"
Fanny lifted her large blue eyes to Mr. Miller's face with so truthful, wondering a gaze that he was puzzled. "Can it be," thought he, "that I did not hear aright, that I was deceived? I will, at least, ask her how she spent that evening," so he said: "Fanny, do you remember where you were, or how you were occupied during the last evening of my stay at your father's?"
At first Fanny seemed trying to recall the events of that night; then she said: "Oh, yes, I remember now perfectly well. You and Mr. Wilmot had letters to write, and went to your room early, while father and mother went to one of the neighbors, leaving Julia and me alone in the sitting room."
"Did you both remain in the sitting room during the evening?" continued Mr. Miller.
"Yes," said Fanny, "or, that is, I stayed there all the time; but Julia was gone a long time, and when she returned she would not tell me where she had been."
"But were not you and Luce in your room at all that evening?" continued Mr. Miller.
"Luce!" said Fanny; "I do not remember having seen her once that night; neither was I in my room until bedtime."
There was so much frankness and apparent truth in Fanny's face and manner that Mr. Miller never for a moment doubted her. His first feeling was one of intense happiness at finding that Fanny was, indeed, all he had once fancied her to be. Back through the channels of his heart rolled, for an instant, the full tide of his once secretly nurtured affection for her. It was for an instant, however; for one look at the beautiful Kate convinced him that the love he once bore the gentle, timid girl at his side was nought, when compared with the deep, ardent affection which he now felt for his own cherished wife. "Fanny," said he, "I have wronged you in thought, but never in word or deed, to my knowledge. I was, however, grossly deceived, although I can see no object for the deception."
"What can you mean?" asked Kate, rather anxiously. "Do explain yourself, and not deal in mysteries any longer. What dreadful thing did you imagine Fanny had done--set the stables on fire, or abused the blacks--which?"
Mr. Miller did not immediately answer; and Fanny said: "Come, Mr. Miller, it is not fair to suspect me of evil and not tell what it is. You should be more frank."
"I will tell you," said Mr. Miller; and, in as few words as possible he repeated to Fanny the conversation which he had overheard, between Luce and herself, as he supposed.
When he finished speaking, both Kate and Fanny were silent for a moment; then Kate said: "It was Julia, I know it was. Did you ever notice how much alike their voices are? And, besides, I once heard Julia lay a wager with Mr. Raymond that she could imitate her sister's voice so exactly that one, not seeing her, would be thoroughly deceived."
"Oh, Mrs. Miller," said Fanny, "it cannot be! Why should Julia wish to do so wicked a thing? And yet I now remember that when I was sick, Luce came to me one night and asked me to forgive her for everything bad she had ever done to me. I assured her I knew of nothing to forgive; and then she cried, and said I did not know all she did about her wickedness. She must have referred to that night. I can forgive her; for she is a poor ignorant girl, and much afraid of Julia. But how could my own sister do me so great a wrong, and what could have been her object?"
Here Fanny burst into tears, while Kate gave vent to her indignation by expressing her opinion pretty freely of Miss Julia.
"I can see," said she, "what Julia's object was. I fancy she was always fearful lest my brother should like Fanny the best; and she probably took this method to make you both think meanly of Fanny."
"Your idea is, probably, the correct one," said Mr. Miller, who would have added more, but Kate interrupted him by saying, "Yes, I think I understand it all now. Julia is, probably, at the foundation of Dr. Lacey's neglect. Most likely she's been writing him some base falsehood."
"Dr. Lacey's neglect!" repeated Mr. Miller. "What do you mean?"
Kate commenced an explanation, but Fanny started up, saying: "Please, Mrs. Miller, wait until I am gone."
She then quitted the apartment, and sought her own room, of which Julia had been sole occupant for more than an hour. On her return from school this hopeful young lady was pleased to find her sister absent. Seating herself near the window, with paper and pencil, she began the composition of that letter, which, as we have said, widened the breach between Dr. Lacey and Fanny. This unhallowed work cost her a world of pains. Many times were the lines crossed out and rewritten, before they quite suited her. The letter was but half completed, when Fanny was heard coming slowly through the upper hall. Springing up, Julia darted through the window out upon the balcony, and by the time Fanny reached the room she was seated at the furthest end of the veranda, busily engaged with her forgery.
When she at last returned to the room, and tried to converse with her sister, she observed that Fanny shrank from her approach and that she had been weeping. In a very ironical tone Julia said, "What now is the matter? I declare, Fan, I believe you are a perfect little simpleton. I wouldn't be such a cry baby, anyway; and make so much fuss about one good-for-nothing doctor."
Fanny replied very calmly, and without once taking her eyes from her sister's face, "If you think I have been crying about Dr. Lacey, you are mistaken."
"Pray what did you cry for?" said Julia, laughingly. "Did somebody look sideways at you, or omit to call you by some pet baby name?"
"I cried," said Fanny, "because I feared you had been acting very wickedly toward me."
In an instant Julia's assurance left her. The bright color forsook her cheek, which became perfectly white. Fanny noticed the change, and it confirmed her fears. She did not know that the circumstances to which she alluded had long since faded from Julia's memory, and that her present agitation arose from the fear that she might have been detected in her work of deception, and that, after all, she might be foiled and entangled in her own meshes. A glance of intense anger flashed from her large black eye, as she muttered between her closed teeth: "Has the wretch dared to betray me?"
Fanny supposed she referred to Luce; and her first feeling was to save the helpless servant girl from Julia's displeasure; so she said, "Do not condemn Luce; she did not tell me. I received my information from our teacher, Mr. Miller."
"Luce! Mr. Miller! What do you mean?" asked Julia, her eyes lessening to their usual size, and the color again coming to her cheeks and lips. This sudden change in her sister's appearance puzzled Fanny; but she proceeded to relate what she had just heard from Mr. Miller. Julia was so much relieved to find her fears unfounded, and her darling secret safe, that she burst into a loud laugh, which she continued for some time. During this fit of laughter, she was determining whether it were best to confess the whole and seem sorry for it, or to strenuously deny it. Finally, she decided on the former, but resolved not to give the right reason for her conduct; so she said, with an air of great penitence: "Yes, Fanny, I am guilty, and I am glad you know it, too. I have been on the point of acknowledging it to you many times, but shame kept me silent."
"How could you do it, and what did you do it for?" asked Fanny.
Julia replied, "Truth compels me to say that I feared your influence over Mr. Wilmot. I knew how much he admired amiability in females, and I wished to make him think you were no more amiable than other people."
"And yet you say you never cared for his love," continued Fanny.
Miss Julia was getting cornered; but her evil genius did not forsake her, and she answered, "True, I did not care much for him; but I felt flattered with his attentions and I ardently desired to have one person prefer me to you. I know it was wicked in me to do what I did, but you will forgive me, will you not? And I will promise never again to act so deceitfully toward you."
Always sincere in what she said herself, Fanny could not think her sister otherwise; so her hand was extended in token of forgiveness. Julia took it, and raising it to her lips, kept it there for an instant, in order to conceal the treacherous smile of exultation which played round her mouth. "I shall yet triumph," thought she, and, in the exuberance of her joy, she kissed again the soft hand which she held in her grasp. Could Fanny have looked into the heart of her sister, and beheld all its dark designs, she would have fled from her presence as from a poisonous serpent. But, though she was deceived, there was one, the All-seeing One, whose eye was ever upon the sinful girl; and though for a while she seemed to prosper, the same mighty Power so ordered it, that after a time, she who had sown the tempest reaped the whirlwind; and the clouds which hung so heavy and dark around the pathway of her innocent victim, afterward burst with terrific violence upon her own head.
We will now return to Mrs. Miller, whom we left relating to her husband the supposed neglect of Dr. Lacey. She finished her narrative by saying, "I cannot help thinking that by some means, Julia is at the foundation of all this mischief. You and Dr. Lacey were good friends; suppose you write to him, and then we shall at least know the truth of the matter."
"Yes, I will," said Mr. Miller; "tomorrow."
"But why not write tonight?" asked Kate, who was in a hurry.
"Because," answered Mr. Miller, "I shall be engaged tonight and tomorrow will do as well."
Kate could not help feeling that, possibly, "tomorrow" might not do as well; but she said no more on the subject, and waited patiently for the morrow, when, true to his promise, her husband commenced the important letter. We have said that Mr. Miller had never liked Julia. In this letter, however, he spoke as favorably of her as he could; but he told how basely she had once deceived himself and Mr. Wilmot, with regard to Fanny, and also hinted his own and his wife's suspicion, that, in some way or other, Julia was connected with Dr. Lacey's long silence, as well as with the heartless letter which Fanny had received from New Orleans.
"Yes, this will do," said Kate, as she read what her husband had written. "But," she added, "I cannot help feeling sorry that it was not sent yesterday."
"Oh, Kate," said Mr. Miller, gayly, "your anxiety for Fanny has made you nervous, and now you are almost superstitious. One day can make no possible difference in the result of this letter."
Afterward, when it was too late, he learned how much difference the delay of one day caused. By its means, that letter which would have set all right, was sent in the same package with Julia's amiable production, and, as we have seen, was not received by its owner, but was safely stowed away in a cigar box under ground.
Soon after Mr. Miller deposited his letter in the post office, a young girl, closely veiled, entered the same building, and looked anxiously round until her eye fell upon her accomplice, Mr. Dunn. That worthy young man instantly came forward, grinning and bowing, and almost upsetting another clerk, who was also hastening to wait upon the beautiful Miss Middleton.
"Good morning, Miss Julia!" said Mr. Dunn; "glad to see you. Fine morning."
Julia did not deign to reply, for Mr. Dunn's familiarity was exceedingly disgusting to her. She, however, handed him her letter, which he looked at in some surprise, and said in a low tone, "Is this letter from Fanny, or you?"
"From me; send it," answered Julia, at the same time managing to slip an eagle into the hands of the honest clerk.
Leaving the office, the young lady proceeded homeward, thinking to herself, "There, that will settle him, I hope. I am getting on swimmingly."
When Mr. Miller entered his room, on his return from the office, Kate said, "In the course of two weeks, you or Fanny or both, will hear from Dr. Lacey."
"Do not be too sanguine, Katy," answered Mr. Miller: "you may be disappointed."
"Well," continued Kate, "if he pays no attention to your letter, I shall be satisfied that he really is undeserving of Fanny's esteem. I'll not tell her that you have written, for fear of the consequence."
So days came and went, week followed week, in rapid succession, until five weeks were numbered with the past since Mr. Miller's letter had been dispatched. Kate had waited and watched until even her sanguine nature had ceased to hope; for there had come no tidings from the far off Crescent City, and both she and her husband had unwillingly come to the conclusion that Dr. Lacey was really false. Kate manifested her disappointment by an increased tenderness of manner toward Fanny, whom she sincerely loved, and by a more gracious deportment toward Julia, whom she began to fear she had wronged by suspecting her of being accessory to Dr. Lacey's conduct.