Elsie's Kith and Kin by Martha Finley
"One woman reads another's character, without the tedious trouble of deciphering."--JONSON.
Zoe's sleep that night was profound and refreshing, and she woke in perfect health and vigor of body and mind; but the first sound that smote upon her ear--the dashing of sleet against the window-pane--sent a pang of disappointment and dismay to her heart.
She sprang from her bed, and, running to the window, drew aside the curtain, and looked out.
"O Ned!" she groaned, "the ground is covered with sleet and snow,--about a foot deep, I should think,--and just hear how the wind shrieks and howls round the house!"
"Well, love," he answered in a cheery tone, "we are well sheltered, and supplied with all needful things for comfort and enjoyment."
"And one that will destroy every bit of my enjoyment in any or all the others," she sighed; "but," eagerly and half hopefully, "do you think it is quite certain to be too bad for her to go?"
"Quite, I am afraid. If she should offer to go," he added mischievously, "we will not be more urgent against it than politeness demands, and, if she persists, will not refuse the use of the close carriage as far as the depot."
"She offer to go!" exclaimed Zoe scornfully: "you may depend, she'll stay as long as she has the least vestige of an excuse for doing so."
"Oh, now, little woman! don't begin the day with being quite so hard and uncharitable," Edward said, half seriously, half laughingly.
Zoe was not far wrong in her estimate of her guest. Miss Deane was both insincere and a thoroughly selfish person, caring nothing for the comfort or happiness of others. She had perceived Zoe's antipathy from the first day of their acquaintance, and took a revengeful, malicious delight in tormenting her; and she had sufficient penetration to see that the most effectual way to accomplish her end was through Edward. The young wife's ardent and jealous affection for her husband was very evident; plainly, it was pain to her to see him show Miss Deane the slightest attention, or seem interested in any thing she did or said; therefore the intruder put forth every effort to interest him, and monopolize his attention, and at the same time contrived to draw out into exhibition the most unamiable traits in Zoe's character, doing it so adroitly that Edward did not perceive her agency in the matter, and thought Zoe alone to blame. To him Miss Deane's behavior appeared unexceptionable, her manner most polite and courteous, Zoe's just the reverse.
It was so through all that day and week; for the storm continued, and the uninvited guest never so much as hinted at a wish to leave the shelter of their hospitable roof.
Zoe began each day with heroic resolve to be patient and forbearing, sweet-tempered and polite, toward her tormentor, and ended it with a deep sense of humiliating failure, and of having lost something of the high esteem and admiration in which her almost idolized husband had been wont to hold her.
Feeling that, more or less of change in her manner toward him was inevitable; less sure than formerly of his entire approval and ardent affection, a certain timidity and hesitation crept into her manner of approaching him, even when they were quite alone together; she grew sad, silent, and reserved: and he, thinking her sullen and jealous without reason, ceased to lavish endearments upon her, and, more than that, half unconsciously allowed both his looks and tones to express disapprobation and reproof.
That almost broke Zoe's heart; but she strove to hide her wounds from him, and especially from her tormentor.
The storm kept Edward in the house: at another time that would have been a joy to Zoe, but now it only added to her troubles, affording constant opportunity to the wily foe to carry out her evil designs.
On the evening of the second day from the setting in of the storm, Miss Deane challenged Edward to a game of chess. He accepted at once, and with an air of quiet satisfaction brought out the board, and placed the men.
He was fond of the game; but Zoe had never fancied it, and he had played but seldom since their marriage.
Miss Deane was a more than ordinarily skilful player, and so was he; indeed, so well matched were they, that neither found it an easy matter to checkmate the other: and that first game proved a long one,--so long that Zoe, who had watched its progress with some interest in the beginning, eager to see Edward win, at length grew so weary as to find it difficult to keep her eyes open, or refrain from yawning.
But Edward, usually so tenderly careful of her, took no notice,--indeed, as she said bitterly to herself, seemed to have forgotten her existence.
Still, it was with a thrill of delight that she at length perceived that he had come off victorious.
Miss Deane took her defeat with very good grace, and smilingly challenged him to another contest.
"Rather late, isn't it?" he said with a glance at the clock, whose hands pointed to half-past eleven. "Suppose we sign a truce until to-morrow?"
"Certainly: that will be decidedly best," she promptly replied, following the direction of his glance. "I feel so fresh, and have enjoyed myself so much, that I had no idea of the hour, and am quite ashamed of having kept my youthful hostess up so late," she added, looking sweetly at Zoe. "Very young people need a large amount of sleep, and can't keep up health and strength without it."
"You are most kind," said Zoe, a touch of sarcasm in her tones: "it must be a very sympathetic nature that has enabled you to remember so long how young people feel."
A twinkle of fun shone in Edward's eyes at that.
Miss Deane colored furiously, bade a hasty good-night, and departed to her own room.
"That was a rather hard thrust, my dear," remarked Edward, laughing, as he led the way into their dressing-room; "not quite polite, I'm afraid."
"I don't care if it wasn't!" said Zoe. "She is always twitting me on my extreme youth."
"Sour grapes," he said lightly: "she will never see twenty-five again, and would give a great deal for your youth. And since you are exactly the age to suit me, why should you care a fig for her sneers?"
"I don't, when I seem to suit you in all respects," returned Zoe with tears in her voice.
Her back was toward him; but he caught sight of her face in a mirror, and saw that tears were also glistening in her eyes.
Putting his arm round her waist, and drawing her to him, "I don't want a piece of perfection for my wife," he said; "she would be decidedly too great a contrast to her husband: and I have never yet seen the woman or girl I should be willing to take in exchange for the one belonging to me. And I'm very sure such a one doesn't exist."
"How good in you to say it!" she said, clinging about his neck, and lifting to his, eyes shining with joy and love. "O Ned! we were so happy by ourselves!"
"So we were," he assented, "and so we may hope to be again very soon."
"Not so very, I'm afraid," she answered with a rueful shake of the head; "for just hark how it is storming still!"
"Yes; but it may be all over by morning. How weary you look, love! Get to bed as fast as you can. You should not have waited for the conclusion of that long game, that, I know, did not interest you."
"I was interested for your sake," she said, "and so glad to see you win."
"Wife-like," he returned with a smile, adding, "It was a very close game, and you needn't be surprised to see me beaten in the next battle."
"I'm afraid she will stay for that, even if the storm is over," sighed Zoe. "Dear me! I don't see how anybody can have the face to stay where she is self-invited, and must know she isn't a welcome guest to the lady of the house. I'd go through any storm rather than prolong a visit under such circumstances."
"You would never have put yourself in such a position," Edward said. "But I wish you could manage to treat her with a little more cordiality. I should feel more comfortable. I could not avoid bringing her here, as you know; nor can I send her away in such inclement weather, or, indeed, at all, till she offers to go; and your want of courtesy toward her--to put it mildly--is a constant mortification to me."
"Why don't you say at once that you are ashamed of me?" she exclaimed, tears starting to her eyes again, as with a determined effort she freed herself from his grasp, and moved away to the farther side of the room.
"I am usually very proud of you," he answered in a quiet tone; "but this woman seems to exert a strangely malign influence over you."
To that, Zoe made no response; she could not trust herself to speak; so prepared for bed, and laid herself down there in silence, wiped away a tear or two, and presently fell asleep.
Morning brought no abatement of the storm, and consequently no relief to Zoe from the annoyance of Miss Deane's presence in the house.
On waking, she found that Edward had risen before her; she heard him moving about in the dressing-room; then he came to the door, looked in, and, seeing her eyes open, said, "Ah, so you are awake! I hope you slept well? I'm sorry for your sake that it is still storming."
"Yes, I slept soundly, thank you; and as for the storm, I'll just have to try to bear with it and its consequences as patiently as possible," she sighed.
"A wise resolve, my dear. I hope you will try to carry it out." he returned. "Now I must run away, and leave you to make your toilet, as I have some little matters to attend to before breakfast."
She made no reply; and he passed out of the room, and down the stairs.
"Poor little woman!" he said to himself: "she looks depressed, though usually she is so bright and cheery. I hope, from my heart, Miss Deane may never darken these doors again."
Zoe was feeling quite out of spirits over the prospect of another day to be spent in society so distasteful: she lay for a moment contemplating it ruefully.
"The worst of it is, that she manages to make me appear so unamiable and unattractive in my husband's eyes," she sighed to herself. "But I'll foil her efforts," she added, between her shut teeth, springing up, and beginning her toilet as she spoke: "he likes to have me bright and cheery, and well and becomingly dressed, and so I will be."
She made haste to arrange her hair in the style he considered most becoming, and to don the morning-dress he most admired.
As she put the finishing touches to her attire, she thought she heard his step on the stairs, and ran out eagerly to meet him, and claim a morning kiss.
But the bright, joyous expression of her face suddenly changed to one of anger and chagrin as she caught the sound of his and Miss Deane's voices in the hall below, and, looking over the balustrade, saw them go into the library together.
"She begins early! It's a pity if I can't have my own husband to myself even before breakfast," Zoe muttered, stepping back into the dressing-room.
Her first impulse was to remain where she was; the second, to go down at once, and join them.
She hastened to do so, but, before she reached the foot of the stairway, the breakfast-bell rang; and, instead of going into the library, she passed on directly to the dining-room, and, as the other two entered a moment later, gave Miss Deane a cold "Good-morning," and Edward a half reproachful, half pleading look, which he, however, returned with one so kind and re-assuring that she immediately recovered her spirits, and was able to do the honors of the table with ease and grace.
Coming upon her in that room alone, an hour later, just as she had dismissed Aunt Dicey with her orders for the day, "Little wife," he said, bending down to give her the coveted caress, "I owe you an explanation."
"No, Ned, dear, I don't ask it of you: I know it is all right," she answered, flushing with happiness, and her eyes smiling up into his.
"Still, I think it best to explain," he said. "I had finished attending to the little matters I spoke of,--writing a note, and giving some directions to Uncle Ben,--and was on my way back to our apartments, when Miss Deane met me on the stairway, and asked if I would go into the library with her, and help her to look up a certain passage in one of Shakspeare's plays, which she wished to quote in a letter she was writing. She was anxious to have it perfectly correct, she said, and would be extremely obliged for my assistance in finding it."
"And you could not in politeness refuse. I know that, Ned, and please don't think me jealous."
"I know, dear, that you try not to be; and it shall be my care to avoid giving you the least occasion. And I do again earnestly assure you, you need have no fear that the first place in my heart will not always be yours."
"I don't fear it," she said; "and yet,--O Ned! it is misery to me to have to share your society with that woman, even for a day or two!"
"I don't know how I can help you out of it," he said, after a moment's consideration, "unless by shutting myself up alone,--to attend to correspondence or something,--and leaving you to entertain her by yourself. Shall I do that?"
"Oh, no! unless you much prefer it. I think it would set me wild to have her whole attention concentrated upon me," Zoe answered with an uneasy laugh.
So they went together to the parlor, where Miss Deane sat waiting for them, or rather for Edward.
She had the chess-board out, the men placed, and at once challenged him to a renewal of last night's contest.
He accepted, of course; and they played without intermission till lunch-time, Zoe sitting by, for the most part silent, and wishing Miss Deane miles away from Ion.
This proved a worse day to her than either of the preceding ones. Miss Deane succeeded several times in rousing her to an exhibition of temper that very much mortified and displeased Edward; and his manner, when they retired that night to their private apartments, was many degrees colder than it had been in the morning. He considered himself forbearing in refraining from remark to Zoe on her behavior; while she said to herself, she would rather he would scold her, and have done with it, than keep on looking like a thunder-cloud, and not speaking at all. He was not more disgusted with her conduct than she was herself, and she would own it in a minute if he would but say a kind word to open the way.
But he did not; and they made their preparations for the night and sought their pillows in uncomfortable silence, Zoe wetting hers with tears before she slept.