Great was Mr. Middleton's surprise when informed by Dr. Lacey of his engagement with Julia. Something in his countenance must have betrayed it, for Dr. Lacey said, "You seem astonished, sir. Are you displeased?"
"Certainly not; I am glad," answered Mr. Middleton. "Yet I confess I was surprised, for I had never thought of such a thing. Once I had hoped you would marry Fanny, but since Frank Cameron has rendered that impossible, you cannot do better than take Julia. She is intelligent, accomplished and handsome, and although she has some faults, your influence over her will lead her to correct them."
Unlike this was the reception which the intelligence met with from Dr. Lacey's negroes.
"What that ar you sayin'," asked Aunt Dilsey of Rondeau, who was communicating the important news to Leffie.
"You'd better ask," replied Rondeau. "Who do you suppose Marster George is goin' to fetch here to crack our heads for us?"
"Dun know--Miss Mabel, maybe," said Aunt Dilsey.
"No, sir; Miss Mabel is bad enough, but she can't hold a candle to this one," answered Rondeau.
"You don't mean Miss July," shrieked rather than asked Aunt Dilsey.
"I don't mean nobody else, mother Dilsey," said Rondeau.
Up flew Aunt Dilsey's hands in amazement, and up rolled her eyes in dismay. "I 'clar for't," said she, "if Marster George has done made such a fool of hisself, I hope she'll pull his bar a heap worse than she did Jack's."
"No danger but what she will, and yours too," was Rondeau's consoling reply.
"Lord knows," said Aunt Dilsey, "fust time she sasses me, I'll run away long of Jack and the baby. I'll tie up my new gown and cap in a handkerchief this night."
Leffie now proposed that her mother should defer her intended flight until the arrival of the dreaded Julia, while Rondeau added, "Besides, Dilsey, if you should run away your delicate body couldn't get further than the swamp, where you'd go in up to your neck first lunge, and all marster's horses couldn't draw you out."
This allusion to her size changed the current of Aunt Dilsey's wrath, which now turned and spent itself on Rondeau. Her impression of Julia, however, never changed, although she was not called upon to run away.
Mrs. Lacey, too, received the news of her son's engagement with evident dissatisfaction; but she thought remonstrance would be useless, and she kept silent, secretly praying that Julia might prove better than her fears. In due course of time there came from Kentucky a letter of congratulation from Fanny; but she was so unaccustomed to say or write what she did not feel that the letter, so far as congratulations were concerned, was a total failure. She, however, denied her engagement with Frank, and this, if nothing else, was sufficient reason why Julia refused to show it to Dr. Lacey. Julia knew the chain by which she held him was brittle and might at any time be broken, and it was not strange that she longed for the last days of October, when with Dr. Lacey she would return to Kentucky.
They came at last, and one bright, cloudless morning Uncle Joshua got out his carriage and proceeded to Frankfort, where, as he had expected, he met Julia and his expected son-in-law. His greeting of the former was kind and fatherly enough, but the moment he saw the latter, he felt, as he afterward said, an almost unconquerable desire to flatten his nose, gouge his eyes, knock out his teeth and so forth, which operations would doubtless have greatly astonished Dr. Lacey and given him what almost every man has, viz., a most formidable idea of his wife's relations.
He, however, restrained his wrath, and when, at a convenient time, Dr. Lacey, with a few ominous "ahems" and made-up coughs, indicated his intention of asking for Julia, Uncle Joshua cut him short by saying, "Never mind, I know what you want. You may have her and welcome. I only wish she would make as good a wife as you will husband. But mind now, when you find out what for a fury you've got, don't come whinin' round me, for I give you fa'r warnin'."
Here Dr. Lacey thought proper to say that possibly Mr. Middleton did not understand his daughter.
"Not understand her?" repeated Mr. Middleton. "What's to hinder? She's my own gal, and I like her well enough; but don't I know she's as fiery as a baker's oven?"
"She is greatly changed," continued Dr. Lacey. "Don't you give her credit for that?"
"Changed?" replied Mr. Middleton. "So's lightnin' changed! It's one of her tricks. Depend on it, you'll find it so." And Mr. Middleton walked off in search of his promising daughter.
Strange as it may seem, the old man's remarks had no other effect on Dr. Lacey than to cause him to pity Julia, who he fancied was misunderstood and misused. He believed her reformation to be sincere, and could not help feeling that Mr. Middleton was mistaken in his opinion of both his daughters.
After tramping all over the house, banging doors and shouting at least a dozen times, "Ho, Tempest, whar for gracious sakes are you?" Mr. Middleton at length found his daughter in Mrs. Miller's room consulting with Kate about her bridal dress. Kate, too, was wholly deceived by Julia's gentleness and apparent frankness of manner, and readily complied with her request that she should be with her the two days preceding the marriage, for the purpose of assisting in the arrangement of affairs. This being settled, Mr. Middleton and his daughter started for home, which they reached about sunset.
Julia leaped gayly from the carriage, and running into the house, embraced her mother, and received the blacks as affectionately as Fanny herself could have done; then missing her sister, she asked, "Where is Fan? Why does she not come to meet me?"
Mrs. Middleton looked inquiringly at her husband, who replied, "No, I hain't told her, jest because she didn't ask me. Sunshine is sick--sick in bed, and has had the potecary three times."
"Fanny sick," said Julia. "Where is she? In her room? I will go to her immediately."
But in going to Fanny, it was necessary to pass the parlor, and Julia could not resist the temptation to look in and see "if the old man had fixed up any."
"Oh, how neat, how pleasant!" was her first exclamation, and truly the cheerless old room had undergone a great renovation. It had been thoroughly cleaned and repainted. The walls were hung with bright, cheerful-looking paper. A handsome carpet covered the floor, while curtains of corresponding beauty shaded the windows. The furniture, tastefully arranged, was nearly all new, and in the waxen flowers, which filled the vases on the mantelpiece, Julia recognized the handiwork of her sister.
Yes, Fanny's love had wrought this change. At first her father had refused to do anything. "No, I won't," said he. "It's good enough, and if it don't suit Lady Tempest, she can go to the hoss barn; that's just fit for 'em."
"Then, father," said Fanny, "do it for my sake. It would please me to have a pleasanter parlor."
This was sufficient. A well-filled purse was placed in Fanny's hands, with liberty to do as she pleased. Then with untiring love, aching heart and throbbing temples, she worked on day after day, until all was completed, parlor, bridal chamber and all. The hangings and drapery of the latter were as white and pure as was she who so patiently worked on, while each fresh beauty added to the room pierced her heart with a deeper anguish, as she thought what and whom it was for. When her mother remonstrated against such unceasing toil, she would smile a sweet, sad smile and say, "Don't hinder me, dear mother, 'tis all I can do to show my love for Julia, and after I am gone they will perhaps think more kindly of me, when they know how I worked for them."
At last all was done; the finishing stroke was given, and then came a reaction. Fanny took her bed, and her father, instantly, alarmed, called the nearest physician. Dr. Gordon readily saw that Fanny's disease was in her mind, and in reply to Mrs. Middleton's inquiries, he frankly told his opinion, and said that unless the cause of her melancholy could be removed, the consequence might be fatal.
"Don't tell my husband," said Mrs. Middleton, "his life is bound up in Fanny, and the day that sees her dead will, I fear, also make me a widow." Accordingly, Mr. Middleton was deceived into a belief that Fanny's illness was the result of over-exertion, and that she would soon recover.
In a day or two she seemed better, but was not able to come downstairs. Instead, she had no desire or intention of doing so until after the wedding, for she felt she could not, would not, see Dr. Lacey for the world. Since the receipt of her sister's letter she had been given a holier love, a firmer faith, than aught on earth can bestow, and she was now under the influence of religion; of lasting, true religion. This then was the reason why she welcomed her sister so affectionately, and felt no emotion either of resentment or anger toward those who were thus trampling on the bleeding fibers of her heart.
As Julia kissed the almost transparent brow of her sister, and clasped her thin, white fingers, tears gathered in her eyes and she thought, "This ruin have I wrought, and for it I must answer"; but not long did she ever suffer her conscience to trouble her, and the next hour she was chatting away to Fanny about the preparations for her wedding, which was to take place one week from that day. Fanny listened as one who heard not. She was praying for more grace, more strength to endure yet a little longer.
Slowly to Julia dragged the days of that week, while to Fanny they sped on rapid wing. And now everything within and without the house betokened the coming event. Servants scampered hither and thither, thinking they were doing it all, while in reality they were doing nothing. Mrs. Middleton scolded the blacks, and Uncle Joshua scolded Mrs. Middleton, at the same time walking mechanically from the kitchen to the parlor, from the parlor to Fanny's sick room and from Fanny's sick room back to the kitchen, occasionally kicking from his path some luckless kitten, dog or black baby, which latter set up most lusty yells, just to vary the scene.
In the midst of all this Fanny lay calmly and quietly on her low bed, counting each succeeding sun as it rose and set, bringing nearer and nearer a day she so much dreaded. True to her promise, Kate Miller came two days before the wedding. Fanny was asleep when she entered the room to see her, but on the white, wasted face Kate's tears fell as she said, "Poor Fanny! I did not know she was so ill."
Mr. Middleton, who was present, muttered: "Yes, cursed be the one who made her so!" He knew not that he cursed his own child.
The next day Mr. William Middleton arrived, bringing the intelligence that Florence and Mabel had accompanied him, and would next evening be present at the wedding. Slowly the last rays of a bright October sun faded in the west, giving no sign of the stormy day which was to succeed. Long after midnight a lone watcher sat by the window in Fanny's room, gazing at the stars, which looked so quietly on from their distant homes, and praying, not for herself, but for Dr. Lacey, that he might be happy with her he had chosen. At last, chilled with the night air, she crept shivering to her pillow, nor woke again until aroused by the fierce moaning of the autumn wind, which shook the casement, and by the sound of the driving rain which beat against the pane. Yes, the morning which dawned on Julia's bridal day was wild and stormy, but before noon the clouds cleared away and the afternoon was dry, hot and oppressive, a precursor to the mightier and more wrathful storm which followed.
About five o'clock there was a noise in the yard, and Kate, who was in Fanny's room, arranging her young friend's hair, looked from the window and said, "It is Dr. Lacey. Julia has looked for him for more than three hours."
Quickly Fanny hurried to the window. She could not meet Dr. Lacey face to face, but she wished to look at him once more. She was too late, however. He had entered the house, and soon the sound of his voice reached her ear. He had not been there long ere he asked for Fanny.
On being told she was sick, he seemed rather disturbed. Possibly, however, he felt relieved to know she would not be present when he took upon him vows which should have been breathed to her. Ashton, Florence and Mabel now arrived, and soon after came Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, accompanied by Mrs. Carrington, who had been invited because it would not do to slight her, and who came because she had a mind to!
The ceremony was to take place at seven o'clock, and guests each moment arrived, until the parlor seemed almost full. Alone in her chamber sat Fanny, listening to the sounds of mirth, which grated on her ear. Night, dark and stormy, was gathering over the earth, but a darker night lay round the heart of the young girl, as she watched from her pillow a dense, black pile of clouds, which had appeared in the west, and now increased until the whole sky was overspread, as with a pall of darkness, while distant peals of muttered thunder announced the coming storm.
And now louder roared the howling wind and brighter the glaring lightning flashed, while fiercer grew the conflict in Fanny's bosom. Her faith was weak, and well nigh blotted with tears of human weakness. But He, whose power could stay the storm without, could also still the agony within, and o'er the troubled waters of that aching heart there fell a peaceful calm.
Suddenly the door opened and a creature of wondrous, dazzling beauty appeared. It was Julia, in her bridal robe. She would fain have her sister's blessing ere she descended to the parlor. The struggle was over and the blessing which Fanny gave her sister was sincere, but when Julia asked forgiveness for all the evil she had ever done, the reply was prevented by a crash of thunder so terrific that Julia trembled with terror, and hastily left the room.
In a moment there was a light step upon the stair. Fanny knew it was Dr. Lacey, for he soon returned with Julia, and as they passed her door she heard the merry laugh of Florence, who was bridesmaid. In an instant they were in the parlor, throughout which a general gloom seemed to reign. Perhaps it was owing to the wildness of the storm, which each moment increased in fury. The bridal party took their places and Uncle Joshua shut his eyes, while the marriage ceremony commenced.
The reader may now accompany me to the border of yonder wood, where stands a low-roofed building, the property of Mrs. Dunn. There in a darkened room lay the widow's only son, raving in the madness of delirium. The fever flame burned in each vein, and as he tossed from side to side he would shriek out, "Quick, I tell you or you are too late. She must not wed him. Don't you know she's doubly, trebly steeped in guilt? Go quick, I tell you, and stop it."
Mrs. Dunn could only weep, for she knew not, dreamed not, what her son could mean. Soon he grew calm, and fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke Billy Jeffrey, who lived near, was sitting by him. To Mrs. Dunn's delight, Joseph was sane, and calling her to him he said, "Isn't Julia Middleton to be married tonight?"
"She is," answered his mother.
"At what hour?"
"What time is it now?"
"Half-past six," replied Mrs. Dunn.
"It must not be," said Joseph, and turning to Bill he added, "listen, William, to what I have to tell, then speed along on the lightning's wing, and tear her from the altar--take her from his side, I say, and put there the other one, the pale, golden-haired one"; then, as he noticed the vacant look on Bill's face, he added, "oh, no, you can't tell it. You wouldn't understand it. Mother, bring me a pen and some paper."
The paper was brought, and as soon as possible Joseph wrote a confession of his own and Julia's guilt. "Now, Bill," said he, "run for your life, and give this to Dr. Lacey. Do it for the sake of Fanny."
Bill needed no second bidding. His obtuse intellect had gathered that in some way Fanny was in danger, and away he flew over bushes, briers, rocks and ditches. But alas! The way was long and dark, and ere he was aware of it, he was precipitated into one of the sink holes which are so common in the limestone soil of Kentucky. The fall sprained his ankle, but gathering himself up, he continued on, slowly and painfully.
Meantime delirium had again crept over Joseph Dunn, and he forgot that he sent Billy, but concluded he must go himself. Watching a time when his mother was from the room, he rose, and throwing on his double gown, went forth into the storm, and was soon far on his road toward Mr. Middleton.
The man of God had scarcely finished the second paragraph of the Episcopal ceremony, beginning with, "I require and charge you both," etc., when a shriek, wild and unearthly and horrid, rent the air. It was succeeded by a thunder crash so deafening that the ladies paled with terror. The large maple tree, which stood by the front door, and which Julia had called hers, was shivered by lightning, but no one heeded it, for again was heard that fearful, maniacal shriek, and this time could be distinguished the sound as of some one struggling with the blacks, who were huddled together in the hall.
"Let me go, I tell you," said the voice. "It shall not go on!"
All eyes turned toward the door, as Joseph Dunn appeared, shouting, "Stop it! Stop it! She forged those letters. She broke her sister's heart. Stop it, I say!" Every person in the room seemed terror-stricken at the wild spectacle he presented. His face, wasted to a mere skeleton, was ghastly white, while his long yellow hair hung in matted locks about his brow, and a look of wild frenzy was in his eye, as darting toward the paralyzed Julia, he seized her as with a lion's grasp and shook her most furiously.
Bill Jeffrey was close behind. He had lost his hat and the rain had soaked his thick hair until it clung closely to his head, giving him, too, a strange appearance. Mr. William Middleton now came forward to ask an explanation of Joseph, who, chancing to see Bill, said, "He's got the letter--my confession. Read that--I am too exhausted," and he fell upon the floor.
No one noticed him, for all gazed intently at Bill, who drew from his pocket a paper and presented it to Dr. Lacey. In a calm, clear voice, Dr. Lacey read aloud the confession, in the midst of thunder, lightning, groans, cries and oaths, the latter of which were the spontaneous production of Uncle Joshua, who sat still in his chair until the confession was read through; then with one bound he reached Julia, and raising her from the floor, said, "Speak, Satan, and tell if this is true!"
Julia was overtaken, surrounded on all sides, and there was no way of escape. Mechanically, she answered, "I am guilty," while a burst of execration ran round the room. A stifled moan of agony came from Dr. Lacey's parted lips, and he asked in a voice which plainly told his suffering, "Oh, why was I suffered to go thus far? Why, why did no one write?"
"I did," answered Mrs. Miller.
"And I, too," repeated Mrs. Carrington, "but you spurned my letter and treated me with contempt."
"Never, never," scarcely articulated Dr. Lacey. "I never received them; but call Rondeau; he must know something of it."
Rondeau, who had accompanied his master, was called. Explanation followed explanation, testimony crowded upon testimony, and Julia acknowledged all, until at length Dr. Lacey, frantic with the sense of wrong done him, turned to her and said, "Base woman, why have you done this? Your sin has found you out ere it was too late; for, thank God, you are not my wife, nor ever will be!"
Julia now lost all command of herself. Tearing the bridal veil from her brow, she rent it in twain; then from her arm she snatched her diamond bracelet, and trampled it under her feet, while a stream of blood issued from her mouth and stained her white satin dress. A moment more, and she too was extended on the floor by the side of her ally.
Where during this exciting scene was Fanny? The direful sounds had reached her ear, and now at the head of the stairs she listened to the Babel which reigned in the parlor. High above all other voices she distinguished her father's, who, in his uncontrollable fury, was calling to use all the oaths he had ever heard of, besides manufacturing some expressly for the occasion! Then there was a heavy fall, accompanied by a cry from Mrs. Middleton of, "Lift her up--carry her out. Don't you see she is dying?"
Fanny hesitated no longer, but quickly descending the stairs, she forced her way through the blacks into the parlor, where she stood appalled at the scene before her. On the floor lay Julia, who a few moments before stood there resplendent in beauty. Near her sat the maniac, Joseph Dunn. He had recovered from his fainting fit, and was now crouching over the prostrate form of Julia, laughing in delirious glee, as he wiped from her lips the red drops of blood! In a corner of the room a group had gathered, near an open window, through which they were bearing an inanimate object. It was Florence, who had fainted, and as it seemed impossible to effect a passage through the hall, so filled was it with terrified servants, they had sought the window as the best means of egress.
Suddenly over that excited assembly there came a deep silence. It was caused by the appearance of Fanny, who, with her loose white muslin wrapper, and long curls, which floated over her shoulders, seemed like some being from another world, come to stay that storm of passion. Mabel, who was occupied with her cousin, looked back as the calm hush fell upon them, and then and there she first saw Fanny Middleton. The scene was too much for Fanny, and she, too, would have fainted had not Dr. Lacey caught her in his arms. Clasping her slight form passionately to his bosom, he exclaimed, "My own--my Fanny--my wife, for such you are, and such you will be!"
Mr. William Middleton and Mr. Miller, who were bearing Julia from the room, now passed them. Dr. Lacey glanced once at the corpse-like face over which the heavy braids of long black hair had fallen, then with a shudder he again strained Fanny to his heart, saying, "Thank God, thank God, I escaped her in time!" Then turning to the minister, who all this time had stood looking on in mute astonishment, he added, in an authoritative manner, "Go on with the ceremony, sir, and make her my wife." But a new thought entering his mind, he released Fanny, and said, "Pardon me, dear Fanny; sorrow has well nigh bereft me of my senses. In my first joy in finding you innocent, I forgot that you could not be mine, for you belong to another--to Mr. Cameron."
"Cameron go to Thunder!" exclaimed Uncle Joshua, who was still standing near. "That's another of Tempest's lies. She never was engaged to him; never loved him, or any other mortal man, save yourself."
Here, Fanny, who, it will be remembered, was all this time ignorant of the truth, asked if some one would not explain what she saw and heard. "I will," said Dr. Lacey, "it is my duty to do so," and he led her to a window, where he hurriedly told her all--everything which he himself knew, intermingling his words with so much passionate embraces that his sanity was much to be doubted. He had scarcely finished his story when Kate approached him, saying, "For humanity's sake, Dr. Lacey, if you have any skill, exert it in behalf of Julia, who seems to be dying."
Dr. Lacey arose, and winding his arm about Fanny, as if afraid he might lose sight of her, moved toward the room where Julia lay. They had borne her to the bridal chamber, which Fanny had arranged with so much care, and as Dr. Lacey appeared at the door, Uncle Joshua met him and said, "I know she sarved you mean, but I would not have her die. She is my own child, and you must save her if you can." At the same time he pointed to Julia, who lay in the same death-like trance, with the blood still issuing slowly from her livid lips. All that Dr. Lacey could do, he did, but when Dr. Gordon arrived, he gladly gave up his charge to him, and turned his attention toward Fanny, who, overcome by what she had seen and heard, had fainted, and been carried to her own room, where she was surrounded by Mrs. Carrington, Florence and Mabel. These ladies ran against each other, upset the camphor bottle, dropped the lamp and spilled half the cologne, in their zealous efforts to take care of their patient!
In the midst of their confusion Dr. Lacey entered, and they immediately gave up to him the task of restoring her. This he soon did, for it would seem that his very voice had a power to recall Fanny's suspended faculties. Slowly her eyes unclosed; then, as if wearied out, she again closed them, and for a time slept sweetly, calmly, on Dr. Lacey's bosom.
The guests now began to depart, and Bill Jeffrey, who had been sent to inform Mrs. Dunn of her son, returned with some of the neighbors, and carried Joseph away. Owing to the darkness of the night, the company from Frankfort remained until morning, but no eyelid closed in sleep. With maternal solicitude, Mrs. Middleton sat by the bedside of her daughter Julia, whose eyes opened once, but on seeing Dr. Lacey standing near by, she closed them again with a shudder, and a faint wail of anguish escaped her. She had ruptured a small blood vessel, but Dr. Gordon said there was no danger if she could be kept quiet for a few days.
Uncle Joshua thus relieved from alarm concerning her, walked back and forth from her room to Fanny's swearing that he "knew the devil was let loose that night for his special benefit, and that he had come up there to see how much of a row he could get up!"
"He succeeded admirably, I think," said Florence, who, having recovered from her first fright, was now ready to extract whatever fun could be gathered from the surrounding circumstances.
In the kitchen the blacks canvassed the matter after their fashion. Aunt Judy lamented because none of the tempting supper in the dining room was touched, while Bob did not fail to turn his usual round of somersaults, thus evincing his joy that so many good things were left for him to eat, "'Cause," said he, "in course we allus has all that comes off the table."
Aunt Katy took occasion to lecture the young black girls on the awful sin of "conceit," as she called it, pointing them for an example to Julia, "who," she said, "would most likely have to live an old maid all her days." She couldn't have threatened a worse punishment, for many of the negresses had already their own preferences in favor of certain mulatto boys on their master's plantation and others adjoining.
Rondeau seemed to think his sympathy was only needed by his young master, whom he looked upon as a much-abused man. From the first he had felt great contempt for the old house, its master, servants and all; and had come to the conclusion that "they were of no 'count anyhow." This opinion would doubtless have been reserved for Leffie's ear had not affairs taken so unexpected a turn. Now, however, Rondeau felt at liberty to express his mind so freely that Ike considered it his duty to resent the insult.
A regular negro fight ensued, in which Aunt Katy, who was not very active, was thrown down, and as she loudly protested, "every atom of breath was kicked out of her."
The big chicken pie was also turned over into Rondeau's new hat, greatly to the satisfaction of Tiger and the other dogs, who had mingled in the fracas! The riot was finally quelled by Mr. William Middleton and Dr. Lacey, Uncle Joshua declaring he "wouldn't interfere that night if the niggers all fit till they killed themselves."