Chapter I.
 

A baby had come, but he was not welcome. Could anything be sadder?

The young mother lay with her white face to the wall, still as death. A woman opened the chamber door noiselessly and came in, the faint rustle of her garments disturbing the quiet air.

A quick, eager turning of the head, a look half anxious, half fearful, and then the almost breathless question,

"Where is my baby?"

"Never mind about the baby," was answered, almost coldly; "he's well enough. I'm more concerned about you."

"Have you sent word to George?"

"George can't see you. I've said that before."

"Oh, mother! I must see my husband."

"Husband!" The tone of bitter contempt with which the word was uttered struck the daughter like a blow. She had partly risen in her excitement, but now fell back with a low moan, shutting her eyes and turning her face away. Even as she did so, a young man stepped back from the door of the elegant house in which she lay with a baffled, disappointed air. He looked pale and wretched.

"Edith!" Two hours afterward the doctor stood over the young mother, and called her name. She did not move nor reply. He laid his hand on her cheek, and almost started, then bent down and looked at her intently for a moment or two. She had fever. A serious expression came into his face, and there was cause.

The sweet rest and heavenly joy of maternity had been denied to his young patient. The new-born babe had not been suffered to lie even for one blissful moment on her bosom. Hard-hearted family pride and cruel worldliness had robbed her of the delight with which God ever seeks to dower young motherhood, and now the overtaxed body and brain had given way.

For many weeks the frail young creature struggled with delirium--struggled and overcame.

"Where is my baby?"

The first thought of returning consciousness was of her baby.

A woman who sat in a distant part of the chamber started up and crossed to the bed. She was past middle life, of medium stature, with small, clearly cut features and cold blue eyes. Her mouth was full, but very firm. Self-poise was visible even in her surprised movements. She bent over the bed and looked into Edith's wistful eyes.

"Where is my baby, mother?" Mrs. Dinneford put her fingers lightly on Edith's lips.

"You must be very quiet," she said, in a low, even voice. "The doctor forbids all excitement. You have been extremely ill."

"Can't I see my baby, mother? It won't hurt me to see my baby."

"Not now. The doctor--"

Edith half arose in bed, a look of doubt and fear coming into her face.

"I want my baby, mother," she said, interrupting her.

A hard, resolute expression came into the cold blue eyes of Mrs. Dinneford. She put her hand firmly against Edith and pressed her back upon the pillow.

"You have been very ill for nearly two months," she said, softening her voice. "No one thought you could live. Thank God! the crisis is over, but not the danger."

"Two months! Oh, mother!"

The slight flush that had come into Edith's wan face faded out, and the pallor it had hidden for a few moments became deeper. She shut her eyes and lay very still, but it was plain from the expression of her face that thought was busy.

"Not two whole months, mother?" she said, at length, in doubtful tones. "Oh no! it cannot be."

"It is just as I have said, Edith; and now, my dear child, as you value your life, keep quiet; all excitement is dangerous."

But repression was impossible. To Edith's consciousness there was no lapse of time. It seemed scarcely an hour since the birth of her baby and its removal from her sight. The inflowing tide of mother-love, the pressure and yearning sweetness of which she had begun to feel when she first called for the baby they had not permitted to rest, even for an instant, on her bosom, was now flooding her heart. Two months! If that were so, what of the baby? To be submissive was impossible.

Starting up half wildly, a vague terror in her face, she cried, piteously,

"Oh, mother, bring me my baby. I shall die if you do not!"

"Your baby is in heaven," said Mrs. Dinneford, softening her voice to a tone of tender regret.

Edith caught her breath, grew very white, and then, with a low, wailing cry that sent a shiver through Mrs. Dinneford's heart, fell back, to all appearance dead.

The mother did not call for help, but sat by the bedside of her daughter, and waited for the issue of this new struggle between life and death. There was no visible excitement, but her mouth was closely set and her cold blue eyes fixed in a kind of vacant stare.

Edith was Mrs. Dinneford's only child, and she had loved her with the strong, selfish love of a worldly and ambitious woman. In her own marriage she had not consulted her heart. Mr. Dinneford's social position and wealth were to her far more than his personal endowments. She would have rejected him without a quicker pulse-beat if these had been all he had to offer. He was disappointed, she was not. Strong, self-asserting, yet politic, Mrs Dinneford managed her good husband about as she pleased in all external matters, and left him to the free enjoyment of his personal tastes, preferences and friendships. The house they lived in, the furniture it contained, the style and equipage assumed by the family, were all of her choice, Mr. Dinneford giving merely a half-constrained or half-indifferent consent. He had learned, by painful and sometimes. humiliating experience, that any contest with Mrs. Helen Dinneford upon which he might enter was sure to end in his defeat.

He was a man of fine moral and intellectual qualities. His wealth gave him leisure, and his tastes, feelings and habits of thought drew him into the society of some of the best men in the city where he lived--best in the true meaning of that word. In all enlightened social reform movements you would be sure of finding Mr. Howard Dinneford. He was an active and efficient member in many boards of public charity, and highly esteemed in them all for his enlightened philanthropy and sound judgment. Everywhere but at home he was strong and influential; there he was weak, submissive and of little account. He had long ago accepted the situation, making a virtue of necessity. A different man--one of stronger will and a more imperious spirit--would have held his own, even though it wrought bitterness and sorrow. But Mr. Dinneford's aversion to strife, and gentleness toward every one, held him away from conflict, and so his home was at least tranquil.

Mrs. Dinneford had her own way, and so long as her husband made no strong opposition to that way all was peaceful.

For Edith, their only child, who was more like her father than her mother, Mr. Dinneford had the tenderest regard. The well-springs of love, choked up so soon after his marriage, were opened freely toward his daughter, and he lived in her a new, sweet and satisfying life. The mother was often jealous of her husband's demonstrative tenderness for Edith. A yearning instinct of womanhood, long repressed by worldliness and a mean social ambition, made her crave at times the love she had cast away, and then her cup of life was very bitter. But fear of Mr. Dinneford's influence over Edith was stronger than any jealousy of his love. She had high views for her daughter. In her own marriage she had set aside all considerations but those of social rank. She had made it a stepping-stone to a higher place in society than the one to which she was born. Still, above them stood many millionnaire families, living in palace-homes, and through her daughter she meant to rise into one of them. It mattered not for the personal quality of the scion of the house; he might be as coarse and common as his father before him, or weak, mean, selfish, and debased by sensual indulgence. This was of little account. To lift Edith to the higher social level was the all in all of Mrs. Dinneford's ambition.

But Mr. Dinneford taught Edith a nobler life-lesson than this, gave her better views of wedlock, pictured for her loving heart the bliss of a true marriage, sighing often as he did so, but unconsciously, at the lost fruition of his own sweet hopes. He was careful to do this only when alone with Edith, guarding his speech when Mrs. Dinneford was present. He had faith in true principles, and with these he sought to guard her life. He knew that she would be pushed forward into society, and knew but too well that one so pure and lovely in mind as well as person would become a centre of attraction, and that he, standing on the outside as it were, would have no power to save her from the saddest of all fates if she were passive and her mother resolute. Her safety must lie in herself.

Edith was brought out early. Mrs. Dinneford could not wait. At seventeen she was thrust into society, set up for sale to the highest bidder, her condition nearer that of a Circassian than a Christian maiden, with her mother as slave-dealer.

So it was and so, it is. You may see the thing every day. But it did not come out according to Mrs. Dinneford's programme. There was a highest bidder; but when he came for his slave, she was not to be found.

Well, the story is trite and brief--the old sad story. Among her suitors was a young man named Granger, and to him Edith gave her heart. But the mother rejected him with anger and scorn. He was not rich, though belonging to a family of high character, and so fell far below her requirements. Under a pressure that almost drove the girl to despair, she gave her consent to a marriage that looked more terrible than death. A month before the time fixed for, its consummation, she barred the contract by a secret union with Granger.

Edith knew her mother's character too well to hope for any reconciliation, so far as Mr. Granger was concerned. Coming in as he had done between her and the consummation of her highest ambition, she could never feel toward him anything but the most bitter hatred; and so, after remaining at home for about a week after her secret marriage, she wrote this brief letter to her mother and went away:

"My DEAR MOTHER: I do not love Spencer Wray, and would rather die than marry him, and so I have made the marriage to which my heart has never consented, an impossibility. You have left me no other alternative but this. I am the wife of George Granger, and go to cast my lot with his.

"Your loving daughter,

"EDITH."

To her father she wrote:

"My DEAR, DEAR FATHER: If I bring sorrow to your good and loving heart by what I have done, I know that it will be tempered with joy at my escape from a union with one from whom my soul has ever turned with irrepressible dislike. Oh, my father, you can understand, if mother cannot, into what a desperate strait I have been brought. I am a deer hunted to the edge of a dizzy chasm, and I leap for life over the dark abyss, praying for strength to reach the farther edge. If I fail in the wild effort, I can only meet destruction; and I would rather be bruised to death on the jagged rocks than trust myself to the hounds and hunters. I write passionately--you will hardly recognize your quiet child; but the repressed instincts of my nature are strong, and peril and despair have broken their bonds. I did not consult you about the step I have taken, because I dared not trust you with my secret. You would have tried to hold me back from the perilous leap, fondly hoping for some other way of escape. I had resolved on putting an impassable gulf between me and danger, if I died in the attempt. I have taken the leap, and may God care for me!

"I have laid up in my heart of hearts, dearest of fathers, the precious life-truths that so often fell from your lips. Not a word that you ever said about the sacredness of marriage has been forgotten. I believe with you that it is a little less than crime to marry when no love exists--that she who does so, sells her heart's birthright for some mess of pottage, sinks down from the pure level of noble womanhood, and traffics away her person, is henceforth meaner in quality if not really vile.

"And so, my father, to save myself from such a depth of degradation and misery, I take my destiny into my own hands. I have grown very strong in my convictions and purposes in the last four weeks. My sight has become suddenly clear. I am older by many years.

"As for George Granger, all I can now say is that I love him, and believe him to be worthy of my love. I am willing to trust him, and am ready to share his lot, however humble.

"Still hold me in your heart, my precious father, as I hold you in mine.

"EDITH."

Mr. Dinneford read this letter twice. It took him some time, his eyes were so full of tears. In view of her approaching marriage with Spencer Wray, his heart had felt very heavy. It was something lighter now. Young Granger was not the man he would have chosen for Edith, but he liked him far better than he did the other, and felt that his child was safe now.

He went to his wife's room, and found her with Edith's letter crushed in her hand. She was sitting motionless, her face pale and rigid, her eyes fixed and stony and her lips tight against her teeth. She did not seem to notice his presence until he put his hand upon her, which he did without speaking. At this she started up and looked at him with a kind of fierce intentness.

"Are you a party to this frightful things?" she demanded.

Mr. Dinneford weakly handed her the letter he had received from Edith. She read it through in half the time it had taken his tear-dimmed eyes to make out the touching sentences. After she had done so, she stood for a few moments as if surprised or baffled. Then she sat down, dropping her head, and remained for a long time without speaking.

"The bitter fruit, Mr. Dinneford," she said, at last, in a voice so strange and hard that it seemed to his ears as if another had spoken. All passion had died out of it.

He waited, but she added nothing more. After a long silence she waved her hand slightly, and without looking at her husband, said,

"I would rather be alone."

Mr. Dinneford took Edith's letter from the floor, where it had dropped from his wife's hand, and withdrew from her presence. She arose quickly as he did so, crossed the room and silently turned the key, locking herself in. Then her manner changed; she moved about the room in a half-aimless, half-conscious way, as though some purpose was beginning to take shape in her mind. Her motions had an easy, cat-like grace, in contrast with their immobility a little while before. Gradually her step became quicker, while ripples of feeling began to pass over her face, which was fast losing its pallor. Gleams of light began shooting from her eyes, that were so dull and stony when her husband found her with Edith's letter crushed in her grasp. Her hands opened and shut upon themselves nervously. This went on, the excitement of her forming purpose, whatever it was, steadily increasing, until she swept about the room like a fury, talking to herself and gesticulating as one half insane from the impelling force of an evil passion.

"Baffled, but not defeated." The excitement had died out. She spoke these words aloud, and with a bitter satisfaction in her voice, then sat down, resting her face in her hands, and remaining for a long time in deep thought.

When she met her husband, an hour afterward, there was a veil over her face, and he tried in vain to look beneath it. She was greatly changed; her countenance had a new expression--something he had never seen there before. For years she had been growing away from him; now she seemed like one removed to a great distance--to have become almost stranger. He felt half afraid of her. She did not speak of Edith, but remained cold, silent and absorbed.

Mrs. Dinneford gave no sign of what was in her heart for many weeks. The feeling of distance and strangeness perceived by her husband went on increasing, until a vague feeling of mystery and fear began to oppress him. Several times he had spoken of Edith, but his wife made no response, nor could he read in her veiled face the secret purposes she was hiding from him.

No wonder that Mr. Dinneford was greatly surprised and overjoyed, on coming home one day, to meet his daughter, to feel her arms about his neck, and to hold her tearful face on his bosom.

"And I'm not going away again, father dear," she said as she kissed him fondly. "Mother has sent for me, and George is to come. Oh, we shall be so happy, so happy!"

And father and daughter cried together, like two happy children, in very excess of gladness. They had met alone, but Mrs. Dinneford came in, her presence falling on them like a cold shadow.

"Two great babies," she said, a covert sneer in her chilling voice.

The joy went slowly out of their faces, though not out of their hearts. There it nestled, and warmed the renewing blood. But a vague, questioning fear began to creep in, a sense of insecurity, a dread of hidden danger. The daughter did not fully trust her mother, nor the husband his wife.