From Lippincott's Monthly Magazine Vol. 68 No. 403 (July, 1901)
The sun was low and the tide was on the ebb. The harbor was like a lake of mother-of-pearl, and some white gulls were in cry over it. The rocks near the shore appeared above the water like ledges of red gold. All the wind was from the land, and the breaths of dying sumach and asters and golden-rod were in it.
The old Williams house was on the steep, dusty incline of the village street, frowning austerely upon it with glimmering green lights of ancient windows under deep cornices wrought with the utmost conscientiousness of elaboration of some old Puritan joiner. The house stood very close to the street, the door-step plumb with the narrow sidewalk. The front door, topped with blue, squinting bulls'-eyes, was open, and the long hall leading straight through to the rear door was visible. Down this hall came Elizabeth Williams, the ninth descendant of Puritans, to greet Ferdinand Dudley, who was also the ninth descendant of Puritans upon one side, and upon the other of a widely different stock: of a fine and proud old Spanish family, which had settled in a colonial island of the West Indies early in the century. Only the South Europe strain was visible in the young man. Those sombre black eyes of his had glances at sharp right angles with those of the villagers of unmixed blood. He was suspected of Catholic leanings, which caused some of the village folk to eye him askance, though many of them had forsaken their Calvinistic tenets for the pleasanter and easier ones of Unitarianism, and danced where their ancestors had knelt for strength against the wiles of the devil and for the punishment of their enemies. Ferdinand danced with the rest, but he did not attend the Unitarian church or any other. People opined that he would go to the Roman Catholic, though it had fallen from its high estate in this little New England village, and its congregation was composed of servant-girls and factory operatives, had it not been for his paternal grandmother, old Madam Dudley. She was as proud as any of his Spanish ancestors, and would have frowned on the worshippers, if not on the worship. However, it was well known that he kept a rosary in his chamber, and said his prayers upon it, and the people, who were still stiff with the spiritual starch of Puritanism, though the latter suns and rains had caused them to wilt in some directions, did not approve. Always a slight shadow of disapproval, like the dawn of an eclipse, rested upon Ferdinand, though he was young and handsome, and his rich old grandmother's only heir. Elizabeth Williams was influenced by none of these considerations for or against, and no one knew why she had held aloof from his proudly ardent advances for so many years. She was twenty-six years old, and many considered her not so pretty as she had been, but Ferdinand never looked with longing eyes at another girl. He never wore his heart upon his sleeve, nor was servile in his wooing, — that was not in his blood, — but he was always warmly attentive when in the least encouraged, and gravely and coldly unobtrusive when repulsed, which was often. It was now three weeks since Ferdinand had been at the Williams house. During his last call he had not seen Elizabeth at all; she had been excused by one of the nervously deprecatory maiden aunts with whom she lived. “My niece is feeling somewhat indisposed and begs to be excused,” said her Aunt Pamela. Ferdinand made his call, and treated Miss Pamela with every whit as much deference and gallant attention as he would have shown towards her niece. When he left, Pamela told privately her sister Roxana that she wondered why Elizabeth was so loth to marry Ferdinand Dudley, for she considered him a most estimable young man, and the match was an advantageous one, if she must needs wed at all. Roxana, who was of a softer nature than her sister and had had a love affair in her youth, said that she could account for it in no way except by a prior attachment.
“Prior attachment!” cried Miss Pamela. “Who could it possibly be?”
Roxana admitted that she could not imagine, and Pamela shook her head decidedly. “It would be impossible for her to set her affections upon anyone to that extent, and we not be able to imagine whom,” said she.
When Ferdinand rang the door-bell that night, Elizabeth would have escaped by the path leading over the bank to the beach, had she not been at once too courteous and too proud.
The one servant-woman was not in the house; there was nothing for her to do but to go to the door, greet Ferdinand hospitably, and invite him to enter. Elizabeth was a tall, pale girl, with brown hair folded softly and plainly back from a high, white forehead; her expression would have been gentle, had it not been for its underlaying of staidness and reserve, which gave an effect of severity. The principle of sexual selection of Ferdinand's paternal family must have been predominant within him, for him to have chosen this typical daughter of Puritans. They stood before each other, a strangely matched pair, as far as personal appearance went: she tall and severely fair, clad like one of her ancestresses in a straight gown of Puritan gray, he small with a sinewy lightness of figure, his dark face tense with restrained impulses, and the touch of southern taste in the red of his necktie and the band of his wide hat.
His grave face sweetened and brightened like a child's when Elizabeth spoke to him. “I was strolling this way, and I ventured to call,” he said, and his voice was very gentle, almost appealing.
Elizabeth smiled. “Pray come in,” she said, and led the way through the hall to the rear porch, where she had been sitting. He would not have a chair, and seated himself on the step at her feet, but looked away from her, turning his face towards the sea. Then the two conversed about the sunset and the beauty of the colors upon land and sea and sky. If either had a vein of poetry and an original interpretation of the scene before them, neither had the spontaneousness of temperament to mention it to the other. They called attention to this green streak on the sea, and that rosy cloud in the sky, and the purple gleam of the sea-weed through the shoal water; and the sun sank lower and the stars came out.
Elizabeth's parents were dead, and she lived with her old maiden aunts, Pamela and Roxana. They had been sitting upon the porch all the afternoon with their needle-work and their knitting, both of which still lay on a chair, the one in a basket, the other in a silken bag. While the niece Elizabeth sat on the porch conversing about the glories of the sunset with her admirer, the two old aunts were peeping furtively from an upper window, and listening to ascertain when the caller should be gone that they might descend for their belongings. Roxana had had a slight headache, and she and Pamela had gone to their chamber, taken off their black-silk afternoon gowns, donned the comfortable old chintz bedgowns in the fashion of a generation back, and settled down for a peaceful evening with needle work and knitting, to discover that both had been left upon the porch with an insuperable obstacle to their recovery until the caller should be gone. Pamela's work was an under-petticoat of fine flannel, which she was embroidering by hand after the fashion of her girlhood, and Roxana's was a white garter after an obsolete style which she still affected, knitted in a long strip and wound many times around her slender knees to hold in their places her fine white hose with their silken clocks.
“I would not care, sister, if the work were anything else,” said Roxana, “but I fear that it would be almost indelicate to go down for that, when our niece is sitting with a young gentleman.”
“Perhaps it would be, Roxana,” assented Pamela.
“It would not matter so much if he might not be led to think that the articles belonged to Elizabeth,” said Roxana. “That would no doubt mortify her very much.”
Therefore the two old sisters, with their scruples of an antiquated and overstrained modesty, remained in their upper chamber, peeping and listening for Ferdinand Dudley to take his leave, thrusting their delicately capped old heads cautiously out of the window, and reporting in fine, sibilant whispers.
The young man stayed, and the conversation flowed easily and superficially on, until suddenly the fierce undercurrent broke through the surface froth of it, and Ferdinand with a desperate motion was on his knees before Elizabeth. “Oh Elizabeth, I love you so, I love you so!” he stammered out.
Elizabeth, who had been speaking quite gayly, seemed to turn pale and cold and still, all in a moment.
“I love you so,” Ferdinand repeated, almost sobbing, and his voice, as was always the case when he was under strong excitement, had the accent of his Spanish mother. His face too was fairly feminine in the sweetness of its pleading as he raised it to Elizabeth.
She shrank away from him. “You must not talk to me in this way,” she said. “You know I have tried not to let you talk to me in this way.”
“Oh, I know that,” returned Ferdinand piteously; “I know that. You have not let me make any mistake. I knew you did not want me to speak, but I could not help it. Oh Elizabeth, I love you so.”
“Hush,” said Elizabeth, “there is no use. You know it well enough.”
The young man had seized her hand and was covering it with kisses. “I know nothing except that I love you,” he said.
“You make me very unhappy,” Elizabeth returned coldly, trying to draw her hand away.
Then suddenly Ferdinand released her hand, and sprang to his feet, and stood before her fairly panting with eagerness, his black eyes glowing.
“I shall make you happy; you shall love me back,” he cried; “such love as mine is for you must win love in return. It makes you mine, Elizabeth; you must love me, you cannot escape me!”
Elizabeth rose also and looked at him proudly.
“We have had enough of this,” said she; “I must beg you to excuse me, Mr. Dudley.”
But Ferdinand stood before her. “No, hear me; you must hear me,” he urged hotly. “Why don't you love me? What is there in me that you do not like? You owe it to me at least to tell me that.”
“I tell you there is nothing that I dislike, that I can give you as a reason for not loving you,” Elizabeth replied impatiently. “Let me go, Mr. Dudley.”
But Ferdinand did not move. “Then, if that is the case, you will love me,” he declared confidently. “If there is no fault in the soil and the light, the plant has to grow. I can wait, dear.”
“And I tell you there is no use in your waiting,” Elizabeth cried indignantly. Then she added, stung into cruelty by this persistent wooing, “If you wait forever you will never be any nearer me. I can never love you as long as I live.”
Ferdinand's eyes blazed back at hers, and a fierceness sharpened through his manner as the claws of a cat sharpen through the softness of her fur.
“And I say you shall,” he answered back defiantly, “unless —” He hesitated a second — “Unless you love somebody else,” he said then with a gasp.
“Then I will tell you once for all,” answered Elizabeth, “I do love somebody else.”
Ferdinand's manner changed suddenly, all his eagerness vanished. When he spoke his voice grated like the keel of a boat upon ice, in spite of his effort to control it. “Who is he?” he asked.
“I am not ready to make that public,” Elizabeth replied shortly.
“Where is he?” demanded Ferdinand, still in that grating voice, and the girl looked at him in sudden alarm.
“That also I am not prepared to tell,” said she with dignity, but her eyes were anxious.
“Oh, well, never mind,” returned Ferdinand. Then suddenly he laughed in his usual manner and threw himself down in his old place on the porch-step.
“Of course, that settles it,” he said easily; “nothing more need be said. Come, Elizabeth, sit down again, and don't make me cut my call short, for I don't know what to do with myself when I get home. Let us talk on another subject.”
Elizabeth hesitated, looking at him doubtfully. She did not understand this at all, not knowing that this was the way, inherited from his New England father, of manifesting the pride inherited from his Spanish mother. There was an incongruity, as of opposing natures, in it which shocked her vaguely. Had he stalked off in gloomy dudgeon, she would not have been so alarmed or disturbed.
“Oh, sit down,” he said with another laugh. “Of course, had I known that I was poaching on another man's preserves, I would have said nothing, but I never dreamed — I never knew you to encourage any man more than you encouraged me.”
Elizabeth seated herself, still hesitatingly; she felt that it would be ungenerous and discourteous to do anything else, and yet her whole soul was awake with alarm and impatience. Ferdinand lighted a fresh cigar, shielding it carefully from the wind. Elizabeth breathed more easily when he did that; it always seemed to her to mark a masculine lapse into former conditions. Still, he did not quit the subject when he spoke again, though it was between luxurious puffs of smoke, and with a kind of nonchalant reflectiveness. “I must say I did not dream of any other man here whom you would be likely to favor,” said he, and he looked as if all his possible rivals were drawn up before his mental vision. Elizabeth flushed angrily and made a motion to arise.
Ferdinand thrust out a hand, seized the hem of her gray gown, and pulled her gently down. “Oh, don't be angry,” he pleaded, laughing, “don't go. I won't speak of the subject again. I would not have then, only I wondered —” In spite of himself his voice grated, and Elizabeth started.
“He is not here,” she said unguardedly with a quick impulse.
“Oh, well,” returned Ferdinand easily, “I am glad to know that none of my fellow-townsmen are preferred before me, at any rate. See that cross-current of silver in the sea.”
The moon was up and the night was clear, yet with no breath of frost in it. The two sat there, keeping up their surface conversation, hiding, as it were, the depths underneath by a smooth shimmer of reflection of ordinary life. The two old sisters in the chamber overhead were still peering and listening for Ferdinand to leave that they might get their work. “He's lit another cigar,” Sister Roxana said mournfully, drawing in her head from the window.
“I am afraid he has,” assented Pamela.
“I doubt if so many cigars are good for young men,” said Roxana.
It was after ten o'clock when Ferdinand rose to take leave. He talked quite gayly and naturally to the last, and just as he was traversing the long hall he volunteered a piece of news.
“By the way,” said he, “have you heard of the marriage of my old friend, Anston Millet?”
“No,” replied Elizabeth.
“Well, I understand it came off last week. He married a Boston girl. Someone told me so on the train to-day, the first I had heard of it, though I used to see a good deal of him at one time. I suppose you don't remember Anston Millet. He cannot have been here much since you were a child.”
“I have seen him since I was eighteen, and I remember him quite well,” said Elizabeth. “Good-night, Mr. Dudley.”
When the door was shut behind Ferdinand Dudley Elizabeth leaned against the old panels. She had seen Anston Millet many times during the last eight years, when she had been staying in Boston. She had promised to marry him when his fortunes should be bettered, keeping the engagement a secret until then. She had carried on a correspondence with him until the last year, when she had neither seen nor heard anything of him, and had torn her heart with vain watching, though nobody had suspected. Elizabeth realized at this first unveiling of her woe to her own eyes that she would have gone mad had she known that others as well as herself would see it in all its hideousness. The very nudity of the soul is exposed when its farthest grief is patent to the world, and it is something for a proud and sensitive soul to have its own private corner of suffering.
Elizabeth was still leaning against the door-panel when she heard a softly shuffling step and the trail of draperies on the stair, then the gleam of a candle crossed the hall. She straightened herself as her Aunt Roxana came down the stairs, holding a little checkered shawl tightly across her slender shoulders, elevating her wavering candle to light her careful steps.
“Has he gone?” she whispered as she reached the foot of the stairs.
“Yes, Aunt Roxana.”
“I wanted my knitting-work, and sister wanted her sewing, and we did not like to come down and get them before him,” said Roxana, with an accent of the gentlest and most resigned injury.
“I am sorry that you have waited so long,” returned Elizabeth, and she went quickly out on the porch and brought the knitting and needle-work to her aunt.
“Thank you, my dear,” said Roxana. “We feared that it would not be quite delicate for us to come for them while your caller was there.”
“He would not have noticed,” Elizabeth replied absently.
“Your Aunt Pamela and I feared that he might. We do not think that the young man ought to smoke quite so many cigars, my dear.”
“I am sure that he smokes too many,” said Pamela's more decided voice from the head of the stairs, her face also lighted by a streaming candle.
“I daresay he does,” assented Elizabeth.
She went about locking the house for the night. The old sisters remained up until after midnight pursuing their interrupted work, though they did not wish their niece to know it. Elizabeth's attitude towards her aunts was one of young authority and protection, to which they outwardly deferred, but it was always inwardly disregarded. The old servant-woman was entirely on their side, and the spirit of aged negation was stronger in the house than that of youthful assertion. The old sisters sat up and worked, and in that way knew that their niece's lamp burned late. They speculated as to whether she might be ill or not, and looked at her with mild curiosity when she appeared at the breakfast-table. There was between the members of this feminine household a singular and impalpable wall of division, due not so much to lack of sympathy as difference of kind. On the one side were the two old sisters and the old servant cloaked with the secrecy of age, and on the other was the girl cloaked with the secrecy of youth. Each was insensibly arrayed against the other, though there was no lack of interest and even affection.
Roxana and Pamela would have said, “Were you ill last night, dear, that you kept your lamp burning so late?” had they not had their own midnight oil to cover. However, Elizabeth did not look in the least ill; she carried her fair head with a prouder mildness than ever, and there was even a flush of red on her cheeks. She was gayer than usual too, and told of her own accord about Anston Millet's marriage. The old sisters were directly interested and had many questions to ask. Elizabeth said she thought the bride must be pretty and of a good family, as Anston Millet has always struck her as being somewhat fastidious.
“You did not know him very well, did you, my dear?” said Pamela.
“He has been here so little since his boyhood,” said Roxana.
“I saw something of him when I was in Boston,” Elizabeth said simply.
Elizabeth that day was utterly single-minded. She was conscious of only one supporting column of her whole structure, mental and physical, and that was secrecy. She felt that if anyone were to discover what was in her mind, if ever she were to discover it fully herself, she would fall in a collapse of utter destruction. She felt that she could bear anything except that: that other people should see her bearing it, and that she should fairly realize the magnitude of her own burden. Every animal is provided by Providence with its own involuntariness of concealment, like a shell, which is sometimes of such thickness that it can hide therein from itself. Elizabeth that day, when she had braided her hair before her looking-glass, baffled in a sense the laws of light, and produced no true reflection.
After dinner she put on her best visiting-dress, a gray silk, and her gray hat with a wreath of violets, and told her aunts that she was going to call at Madam Dudley's. “I may stay to tea,” said she; “she has asked me to so many times.”
Elizabeth's face blazed softly under the quick glances which her aunts gave her, though she felt all the time as if she were looking at them through her impenetrable veil of self-concealment.
“There is something serious between that young man and Elizabeth,” Pamela said decidedly after the girl had gone.
“She should tell us so, should she not, if that is the case?” said Roxana. “I can hardly believe it, sister.”
“The dear child's only fault is her secretiveness; she is like her mother, who was otherwise quite a faultless woman, in that respect,” said Pamela.
“If matters are not quite settled, it seems to me that it is somewhat indelicate for her to go to take tea with Madam Dudley without an invitation,” said Roxana reflectively.
“It is certainly indecorous according to our bringing up,” replied Pamela; “but if dear Elizabeth does not confide in us, we cannot advise her, and she is no longer a child. You and I had put all thoughts of lovers away when we were not much older than she.”
Roxana colored a little and did not reply.
Elizabeth Williams, holding up her gray skirt out of the dust, went down the village street to Madam Dudley's old mansion-house, a half-mile below. It stood well back from the street, elevated upon terraces. Madam Dudley was knitting at one of her front windows, and saw Elizabeth coming up the stone steps over the terraces. She did not wait for her to ring, but went to the door herself to greet her.
“My dear child,” she said with a soft stateliness of manner not unlike Elizabeth's, and bent to kiss her. Madam Dudley was a very large woman, large rather than stout, and had been a great beauty in her day. She was handsome now, in her fine sable cashmeres and laces, with her crown of silver braids and her long-fingered hands covered with diamonds giving out dead-white lights from their ancient settings.
“My dear child,” she repeated, and Elizabeth knew that Ferdinand could not have told his grandmother of his repulse of the night before. Madam Dudley's heart had long been set upon the match, and she had made no secret of it, striving with her elderly dogmatism, which held both parties as children with issues as of dolls and doll-houses, to bring it about. She was as fond of the girl in her own way as was her grandson. She looked at her even dotingly when her hat and cape were removed, and she was seated with her in the great old-fashioned room.
“You are more charming than ever, my dear,” said she, and there was an inflection in her voice like her grandson's.
Elizabeth blushed. “You are kind to think so,” she replied.
“My dear, I am not the only one,” said Madam Dudley.
The girl's face was suffused with pink as the old woman surveyed it with an insistence which had something masculine in it. She reasoned within herself that something must have been definitely settled between Elizabeth and her grandson. She knew that he had called upon her the night before. “This is a plan between them to surprise and please me,” she thought. “When Ferdinand comes home they will announce the engagement.”
About four o'clock, when she saw her grandson coming up the street, she made an errand and withdrew herself from the room. She met her grandson in the front hall, and her face was foolishly fond, and eager as a child's. She took him by the arm and pushed him softly towards the parlor-door, and flushed pink, and laughed at his astonished gaze.
“Who is it, grandmother?” Ferdinand asked, wondering and half-unwilling to enter.
“Go in and see,” whispered she.
Ferdinand opened the parlor-door, thinking that his grandmother was growing childish, and Elizabeth Williams rose and came forward to meet him.
Ferdinand gave a great start and stood staring at her. Taking into consideration the girl's character, there was only one interpretation that could be placed upon it all. Elizabeth held out her hand to him.
Her face was very pale, and she spoke in a low voice, which gave an impression of timidity and even shame, though it was firm enough. “I want to inquire,” said she, “if you are still of the same mind as last night.”
“Of course I am. Do you think a man changes about a thing of that kind in a day?” replied Ferdinand, but he looked strangely at her.
“Then,” said Elizabeth, “I would like to withdraw the answer which I gave. I would like — to give the opposite.”
Elizabeth turned her head away when she had said that, and stood still. Ferdinand drew a gasping breath, but made no motion towards her. It was only a second, but it was enough to fire Elizabeth's pride. She faced him suddenly. “If you have changed your mind a hair's breadth, mine is the same as it was last night,” she cried out. Then Ferdinand stepped forward and took her in his arms. “It was only because I was so bewildered, sweetheart,” said he. “God knows my mind is as fixed as the stars, and if you are willing to try, I know I can teach you to love me better than that other man.”
Presently Madam Dudley came in, shrinking as timidly in the door-way as if she had her own young love-secret to uncover, and Ferdinand led Elizabeth forward to greet her. “She has promised to marry me, grandmother,” he said simply. He was flushed and triumphant, yet not altogether joyful. The old woman, however, almost lost her dignity in her exuberance of delight. Elizabeth, though she was touched, looked at her with that surprise of youth, whose own interests seem to form an innermost axis of motion for creation, that she should be so moved by something which was, after all, distinctly outside her own small remnant of life. She wept, and kissed her grandson and the girl over and over. Finally she brought out an ancient pearl ring and put it on Elizabeth's finger. “There,” said she, “Ferdinand's grandfather gave it to me before I was married, and I have not worn it for forty years; my finger grew too large. You must wear it now. Ferdinand can give you another ring, but you must wear this from his old grandmother as well.”
After tea, when Elizabeth went home leaning on her accepted lover's arm, she caught herself wondering that people whom they met recognized her and bowed to her, she seemed so strange to her own thoughts, and her impression of her own cloak and masking veil of secrecy so grew upon her.
When the two were nearly home they met Laura Pearson, Elizabeth's friend, a swift-stepping, erect girl, with her young husband, to whom she had been married only since spring. The next day Laura came to call, — the news of Elizabeth's engagement was already well spread over the village.
“Only think,” said Laura, laughing, after she had kissed Elizabeth and wished her in a fervent voice as happy a married life as her own, “I thought — well, I believe I will tell you what I thought, it is so ridiculous, and it can do no harm now. You know how intimate you and Anston Millet were in Boston. Oh, you thought I did not know. My dear, those things are always sung on every bush. George's cousin is Fanny Andrews that was, and she met last year, down at Old Point, your Cousin Emmeline's dearest friend, whom you never saw, because she was married and had gone away before you went to Boston to visit, but Emmeline had told her the whole. So, you see, when I heard of Anston Millet's marriage I made up my mind not to speak of it, thinking you might be hit; but when I met you and Ferdinand last night I told George I guessed there was no occasion for worry. I always thought you could take care of yourself, dear.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Yes, I think I can,” she said.
“Of course, I know how ridiculous it was for me to think of such a thing for a minute,” said Laura Pearson, “but Anston Millet had always the reputation of a lady-killer, you know, and you always refused all your offers, and so — Of course, he was not half good enough for you, and neither is Ferdinand, for that matter, though I have always liked him, and fancied him all the more for that mixture of alien blood. I think you will find it rather amusing, and tending to vary the monotony. Now I can always tell exactly what George will do, and it is never exciting, though I am perfectly happy. I do hope you will know what it is to be so perfectly happy, dear.”
After her friend had gone Elizabeth sat down to realize that even her little comforting cloak of secrecy would have been stripped from her, and she been exposed in the full glare of day to the pitying scrutiny of all her friends, had she not engaged herself to Ferdinand Dudley. After that, while admitting her baseness, she would have fought for it, and after that, curiously enough, she began to love Ferdinand, though she did not fairly know it.
The engagement was to be a short one; the two were to be married before Christmas and go to live with Madam Dudley in the old Dudley mansion. Elizabeth had hesitated about leaving her aunts; she had a strong feeling of duty towards them with no small affection, but they did not seem at all disturbed at the prospect.
“We want you to be happy, my dear,” said Pamela, “and the Dudley house is larger than this; then there are two of us, and there is only one there. It would leave Madam Dudley quite alone. Besides, Madam Dudley is accustomed to having a man in the house, and we are not. It would perhaps disturb her not to have him, and it would be quite an undertaking for your Aunt Roxana and me at our ages.”
“Your Aunt Pamela and I will get along very comfortably with Margaret,” said Roxana with thinly veiled eagerness, “but we want you to consult your own happiness, my dear.”
There was to be an elaborate wedding in the old Congregational church which Madam Dudley had always attended. A great many invitations were issued. Ferdinand wished one to be sent to Anston Millet, and Elizabeth directed the envelope with her own hand. Elizabeth was to be married in her mother's and her grandmother's wedding-dress and veil; she was to have bridesmaids; there was to be a large reception. Elizabeth had seemed strangely anxious for display, and they who knew her best wondered.
“It is not a bit like her,” said Laura Pearson, “but you can never tell what people will do on such occasions, especially when they have always been a little eccentric. Elizabeth, fond as I am of her, has always seemed a little unlike the other girls; one could never quite tell if she was not keeping something back, and one could not always count on what she would do, although she has no alien blood, like poor Ferdinand. I should not be surprised at anything in either of them, if neither of them came to be married, or only one.”
“You ought not to say anything like that, my dear,” said her husband, around whose masculine imperturbability his wife's fancy played like wildfire, sometimes to its actual shaking.
“Oh, it is nothing against them, it only makes them more interesting,” said Laura easily. “Now, you are scarcely interesting at all, you are so readily calculated. Comets were always more appealing to me than fixed stars.”
“I don't believe you would like a comet for a husband in the long run,” said George with perfect good-humor.
Laura and her husband had been assisting to decorate the church for Elizabeth's wedding, mostly with holly and evergreen, because there was nothing else in season. “It seems more like a Christmas-tree than a wedding,” Laura said. “People have no right to get married at this time of year, unless they are multi-millionaires, and can afford roses for everything.”
However, there were plenty of roses around the pulpit and the space where the bridal couple were to stand, and the Williams house was redolent with them. Everything was in readiness, and it was the night before the wedding. Elizabeth's wedding-dress lay beautifully spread out, like a gorgeous plumage of ivory satin and old lace, on the bed of the north guest-chamber. There had been a last rehearsal at the church. Ferdinand had taken Elizabeth home, and after a brief sitting in the parlor had bidden her good-night.
After he had gone Elizabeth went out on the back porch overlooking the sea to get a breath of fresh air. The day had been one of those unseasonably warm ones which sometimes come in December. A thick fog like wool was over the sea, which could not be seen at all, and was evident only through its soft break upon the stones of the beach below. It was high tide. A full moon penetrated the mist with a feeble effulgence of pale light, and the atmosphere was ghostly and unreal in effect. Elizabeth stood looking out at it all, and was conscious of no thought about it, nor any reflections upon herself, and the change in her estate to come so soon. She felt as if she were past thinking, as if she had become so much a part of action that there was no foothold outside for her to gaze and dwell upon it. She had arrived at that stage when one's emotions blot out temporarily their own existence. She looked at the white folding and wavering of the fog, and the watery moon-beams struggling through, and had no consciousness of that or herself, or Ferdinand or the other man, and then suddenly she saw a glimmer of light down on the beach, where nobody walked as a general thing on account of the stones, and least of all at this time of night. It was just a point of light, the fiery tip of a cigar in somebody's mouth. She looked at it idly enough, then suddenly saw another behind the first. Then the first disappeared, but the smoke of it came in her face. Then there was a little shower of sparks on the edge of the bank in front of the porch as the cigar was thrown away, and the man stepped up beside her. It was Anston Millet; she knew him in an instant.
“Don't be frightened,” he said. “Don't you know me?”
“I am not frightened at all, and I know you perfectly,” said Elizabeth. “What are you here for?” She spoke quite slowly and distinctly, but her voice was strange to her own ears.
“I heard you were to be married to-morrow, and —”
“What is that to you?”
“What is that to me? Everything. Oh my God, Elizabeth, don't you know what it is to me?”
“What right have you to come talking to me like this? Are you not married yourself?”
“Married, no! Elizabeth, you did not believe that?”
“Why should I not have believed it? How long is it since I have heard from you?”
“I have loved you all the time, if I have not written to you. Elizabeth —”
“That is enough,” said Elizabeth sternly, and made a motion to go, but he caught her.
“Hear me for the last time; let me explain. You don't know all the circumstances,” he pleaded hoarsely.
“Release me this minute! How dare you?”
“Oh, my darling, have patience a moment. I love no one but you; I have loved no one but you all the time.”
“The more shame to you then; let me go!”
But Anston Millet was kissing her, holding her to him with all his strength, and she struggled like a wild thing. It seemed to her, in this unwonted fire of her Puritan blood, that she could kill him.
Then all at once there was someone else. Millet was seized in a nervous grasp and thrown back, and she was free. “Go into the house,” said Ferdinand to her. He could hardly speak. The light shone from a window full on his face. Millet stood motionless, as if he were waiting.
“Don't,” gasped Elizabeth faintly. “Don't!”
“Go into the house,” repeated Ferdinand.
Then she obeyed and went in. She went up to her own room and knelt down beside her bed, and suddenly it came to her how she loved Ferdinand. She had thought Millet married all this time, and she was one of the women for whom the marriage of a lover establishes an invincible barrier even to thought or imagination. Millet had seemed strange to her, his voice had come as across untold distances of separation. She could never have felt such anger towards him of old. But she loved Ferdinand. A wounded heart, like any other wounded thing, may grow to another the more quickly and insensibly because of the wound, and hers had grown to her new lover's.
Elizabeth sprang up with only one idea in her mind: she must hasten and stop what might be going on between those two men down on the beach before it was too late.
She ran downstairs as noiselessly as she could, but both her aunts were at the foot, pale and peering.
“Pamela thought she heard somebody cry out down on the beach,” said Roxana, trembling. “I am afraid it is a wreck, my dear, and somebody is drowned.”
“I am sure I heard something,” Pamela said firmly.
The two old women in their chintz bedgowns wavered back and forth in the light of their flickering candles as uncertainly as their own shadows.
“Suppose we send Margaret for help?” said Roxana in her weak quaver.
“That is what we must do,” said Pamela.
“You must not, Aunt Pamela,” said Elizabeth; “you must not send anybody.”
“I am not sure —” began Roxana.
“I tell you, keep still, both of you!” cried Elizabeth in a harsh, deep voice, like a man's. Then she was past them and out of the house, and struggling down the tangled bank to the beach, with the shrill remonstrances of the two old sisters ringing in her ears.
It was as still as a tomb except for the break of the waves. Elizabeth groped her way along through the white smother of the fog. She dared not call to Ferdinand for fear of betraying him to her aunts listening on the bank. One thing was very clear to her mind: if Ferdinand should kill Anston Millet she must not betray him, — she must save him at all cost.
She stepped high and cautiously, having a feeling that she might at any minute touch something or hear something which should confirm her fears. The beach was covered with irregular stones; it was difficult to progress with any speed. Only men rendered headstrong and reckless by passion could have gone very far in the short time since they had left her. She stopped often and listened, then struggled on. The fog had increased. She was blinded and half-smothered under its soft massiveness, as under a mighty brooding of feathers. The smell of the sea was strong in her nostrils, and she felt heavy drops as of lead on her hair.
At last she leaned against the side of a great rock and listened with all her might. It seemed to her that she did hear something far away on the beach, a clatter as of feet among the loose stones, and she ventured to call out softly, “Ferdinand! Ferdinand!”
Then she hushed with a qualm of terror, for she was sure that she heard oars. Then she was not so sure, still she dared not call again. She became certain that Ferdinand had killed Anston Millet. She waited, thinking that he might come running back to her, and she might help him to escape. That was all she hoped for. She dared not call again, ever so faintly. She kept hearing oars, then thinking that she was mistaken.
Finally she went back to the house, crawling over the stones and up the bank, as if she were very old.
Her aunts were watching for her, their pale faces flattened against a seaward window-pane. The old servant-woman was at another.
Pamela caught her niece by an arm and held her in a nervous grip. “Where have you been? What did you see?” she gasped.
“Oh, where have you been, my dear?” quavered Roxana.
“You are drenched; your gown is drenched. Did you see anything out there?” questioned Pamela with something of sharpness.
“Only some men in a boat; I think there were some men in a boat,” replied Elizabeth in her harsh, unexpectedly deep voice. “Let me go, Aunt Pamela, I want to take off my wet dress.”
Elizabeth went upstairs, and the three old women stood gazing after her. Presently they followed, groping along with their streaming candles, and clinging to the banisters. “Oh sister, are you sure you heard a noise?” asked Roxana.
“I am sure of it,” replied Pamela.
“Oh dear, sister, what do you think it was?”
“I do not know; it was nothing that concerned us,” said Pamela, “but I am sure that I heard a noise.”
The next morning the preparations for the wedding went on, and there was no disturbance until nearly noon. Then Madam Dudley sent over to ascertain if Elizabeth had seen anything of Ferdinand. He had not come down to breakfast, and when, at last, becoming alarmed, they had gone to his room, he was not there. Had he been over to see her that morning? Elizabeth sent back word that she had not seen Ferdinand that morning, but that he might have taken an early train to the city, and stolen out of the house without awakening anyone. She had, in fact, heard him say, and so had his grandmother, that he might be obliged to take a hurried trip to the city that morning, and that gave color to what she said. But she knew that he would not come, and she knew when later in the day she arrayed herself in her bridal finery that it was all a mockery, that there would be no bridegroom and no bride.
At last, when it was as evident to everyone as to herself, when the wedding-guests had gone home and the lights were put out in the church, and Elizabeth in her wedding attire was with her old aunts, Madam Dudley, the bridesmaids, and the minister, no one suspected that she was not surprised, though she was the calmest of them all. Madam Dudley did not weep or lament, but her lips trembled strangely when she strove to give directions. She refused the minister's arm proudly, but she fell rather than sat in her chair. “My grandson has undoubtedly met with foul play,” she said with her thick tongue.
Presently Elizabeth took off her wedding-gown and veil. She refused Laura Pearson's offer of assistance. Laura was dressed in her own wedding-gown, and her eyes were red with weeping. “I told George once I should not be surprised if Ferdinand did not come to the wedding,” she whispered to one of the prospective bridesmaids. “It gives me an awful feeling to remember it. It seems prophetic.”
The girl looked at her with awed eyes; her pretty face was quite pale under her fluff of fair hair. She had a lover, and was imagining what she should do if he were to treat her as Ferdinand had treated Elizabeth. Not one of the bridesmaids but believed that Ferdinand had deserted his bride, and had not met with any accident. The general feeling in the village was not so much alarm as indignation. “What could have happened to him?” people asked. Nobody had any grudge against him, and he had no money with him. He had even left his watch in his room when he changed his clothes for the rehearsal that night. No, he had outlandish blood in his veins, and there was never any telling what a man who had not come from fine, unmixed New England stock might do next. However, every means for discovery as to his whereabouts were employed; searching parties scoured the woods, notices were put in the papers, and the most skilful detectives engaged. Then suddenly the village was transfixed by another mysterious disappearance. One night the first pages of all the Boston papers had columns with large head-lines stating that Anston Millet had disappeared upon the same day which had seen the last of Ferdinand Dudley. He had left his office about noon of that day, and no one had seen him since. At the same time it became generally known that the rumor of his marriage was not based upon fact. Laura Pearson said to Elizabeth that she was thankful that she had not been a bridesmaid at that wedding as well as hers, and was quite oblivious of any sting in her remark. “It is the strangest thing that your old admirer and your prospective husband should have disappeared upon the same day, dear, though, of course, there can be no connection,” she said.
As time went on Elizabeth kept herself very closely at home, and her life was a rigorous monotony. As long as old Madam Dudley lived she was constant in her attendance upon her, and used to listen patiently to her piteous complaints and surmises, for the majestic old woman had fallen since her bereavement into her second childhood. She became sure that her grandson had somehow met his death by the sea. “If only I could have found his poor body,” she used to tell Elizabeth over and over, — “if only I could have found that and had it buried, but to think of him tossing about out there” — and the old woman would point with her tremulous finger to the foaming crawl of the sea just visible from the window.
Elizabeth would think of that other body which she believed to be tossing about out there, beaten only God knew upon what shores, in what ghastly fragments of humanity. While Madam Dudley had no doubt that Ferdinand's last resting-place was the sea, Elizabeth had no doubt that it was Anston Millet's, and that Ferdinand was alive and in guilty hiding. The general opinion among the village folk with regard to Millet was that he had disappeared for the sake of another woman. Another woman had always been poor Millet's main motive-spring of action.
“It would have been something of a satisfaction to you if you had been really married and able to wear black for poor Ferdinand,” Laura Pearson told Elizabeth one afternoon when she had come over for a call.
Laura visited Elizabeth quite frequently, though her calls were seldom returned. She told her husband that she considered it her duty. Laura had a beautiful little girl in charming little white coats and lace bonnets, and she used often to bring her along.
Elizabeth grew to have a dim feeling that she was in the light of a lenten spectacle of wholesome ghastliness to this other woman, though she chided herself for it, thinking that it was morbid and unworthy. Laura never comforted her, nobody ever did. The needle of sympathy could never in her case probe the secret fester of trouble, since nobody knew it. “I might have worn black, I suppose, had I wished to do so, although the marriage ceremony had not been performed,” she replied to Laura.
“Yes, you could, I suppose,” assented Laura doubtfully, “but it would have been rather unusual, and, of course, poor Ferdinand might turn out to be alive any day, and then in case there should be — anybody else — you would feel sort of provoked that you had put on black for him. Not that — why, Elizabeth, don't look at me so!”
“What makes you think he is alive?” asked Elizabeth sharply.
“Oh, nothing. Of course, I don't really think he is. Of course he isn't, or he would have been back to see you before now. Of course he isn't, and you might have put on black, though it would have been unusual. Neither you nor poor Ferdinand ever seemed quite usual, and I don't know that anybody would have been surprised.”
That was on a Tuesday night in September, not long after the brief summer war with Spain had been concluded. On the very next night Laura ran over again, hurrying through the long hall to the porch overlooking the sea, where Elizabeth and her aunts were seated. She was pale and panting; she sank into a chair, and the two old ladies peered at her over their spectacles. “What do you think has happened?” she gasped. “I have just heard it, and ran over as fast as I could. What do you think? He has come back!”
Elizabeth looked at her. “Who has come back?” she asked.
“Oh, I forgot,” cried Laura; “don't look so, dear. I forgot when I spoke that you might think it was somebody else who had come back. Do forgive me, dear.”
“Who has come back?” said Elizabeth.
“Don't look so, dear. I am awfully sorry, but it isn't poor Ferdinand who has come back, but Anston Millet. Why, Elizabeth!”
Laura stared with astonishment. She thought for a minute that Elizabeth had gone mad, as did the two old aunts, for she had given a great cry of joy, and her face was beaming, and that presumably at the news that Ferdinand had not come back, but another man.
“Oh,” thought Elizabeth, “he is not guilty; Ferdinand did not kill him!”
“What ails you, dear?” asked Laura, staring at her uneasily.
“Nothing,” replied Elizabeth; “it is very good news. How did it happen?”
“Oh, he has been with Shafter's army,” replied Laura. “He has been starved and down with fever, and all that sort of thing, like all our heroes who have fought and bled for their country's cause. I am glad, for my part, that George had the sense to stay at home and have his regular meals. Anston looks like a skeleton. I saw him go by, and did not know him. I don't know where he went in the first place. He may have been doing a little private missionary work among the persecuted Cubans in advance. I think it must have been another woman myself, but I don't suppose we shall ever know.”
After Laura had gone, and the two old aunts had taken their knitting and needle-work and retired for the night, Elizabeth sat alone on the porch. All her thoughts and theories were in a chaos, and she was trying to evolve order from them. Gradually she was coming to think that if Ferdinand were innocent, and Anston had returned safely, why, he himself must be the murderer. Where was Ferdinand? What object had he for remaining in concealment, if he had not been guilty, all this time?
It was a very clear night. The rose and violet faded slowly away out of the west, and the full moon was rising above a long slope of bluffs on the east. She could see the stony strip of beach that fringed the high tide, — it ran like a silver-mottled ribbon below the bank. Suddenly she saw a dark figure hastening along over it from the west, then a head rose above the bank, and Ferdinand stood there, beseeching her not to be afraid, not to faint, telling her that he had come back, and could she forgive him.
Elizabeth stood, catching her breath, and staring at him. “Then you did not kill him,” she said in a strange voice, “you did not kill him. I thought all that time —”
“Oh my God! so did I,” Ferdinand cried out, “and I suffered all the torments of the damned. They need not tell me there is a hell for murderers; I have seen it, I have been there. I thought I had killed him. I struck him, and he fell. I slipped and went down too. Then I got on my feet and went away. Then I came back, and the tide was coming in, and the fog. I could not find him, and I thought I had killed him, and I could not face you and bring the disgrace of it all on you, and I ran like Cain with his brother's blood on his hands. Then I went to Spain and enlisted in the army, and then the war broke out, and I was sent to Cuba. I could not help that, you know, though my sympathies — well, never mind that. I did not know what was coming when I enlisted. I am glad the war is over. But I thought him dead all that time, and I had found out in the mean time that he was not married, that he had hard luck, and I did not doubt you for a minute. I was sure you had learned to love me, and I began to think it might all have been due to his despair at losing you, and he had not been so much to blame as I had thought. But I thought I had killed him until I saw him in the trench that blessed day at Santiago, and I had my rifle levelled at him and I dropped it. I would as soon have fired at my good angel, but he fell back as if I had shot him, — for he had thought all that time that he killed me.”
The two old aunts were asleep in their chamber overhead, and the window was open. Presently the smoke of a cigar floated in and wakened Roxana. Then she nudged her sister and wakened her. “He has come; he is down there, sister,” whispered Roxana.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes; cannot you smell his cigar-smoke?”
Pamela sniffed hard. “Yes, I can.”
“Then you did see it in the paper, sister.”
“Yes, I knew I did; I told you so. There it was in the list of names of the persons who came on that ship from Cuba — Ferdinand Dudley. I knew it must be he, but I thought it best not to tell dear Elizabeth, lest he should not come to see her, and she have her feelings lacerated anew.”
“It did seem best not to tell her,” assented Roxana.
“Now he has come. I can smell his cigar-smoke,” said Pamela.
“I wonder if he and Elizabeth will live here?” Roxana said timidly.
“I don't know, now Madam Dudley is dead,” replied Pamela.
“It will seem strange to have a man in the house, when we have not been used to one for so many years, sister.”
“Yes, it will,” assented Pamela with a grim sigh.
The two old sisters lay listening to the soft, unintelligible murmur of love from below, and their room was quite full of cigar-smoke, so full that they could not sleep.