Chapter X.
 
  Keen are the pangs
  Of hapless love and passion unapproved.

  --SMOLLETT'S "REGICIDE"

Hardly anything could have been more distasteful to Horace Dinsmore than the state of affairs revealed to him by Herbert Carrington's note. He was greatly vexed, not at the lad's manner of preferring his request, but that it should have been made at all. He was not ready, yet to listen to such a proposal coming from any person, however eligible, much less from one so sadly afflicted as poor Herbert. He sought his wife's presence with the missive in his hand.

"What is the matter, my dear?" she asked; "I have seldom seen you so disturbed."

"The most absurd nonsense! the most ridiculously provoking affair! Herbert Carrington asking me to give him my daughter! I don't wonder at your astonished look, Rose; a couple of silly children. I should have given either of them credit for more sense."

"It has certainly taken me very much by surprise," said Rose, smiling. "I cannot realize that Elsie is grown up enough to be beginning with such things; yet you know she has passed her fifteenth birthday, and that half the girls about here become engaged before they are sixteen."

"But Elsie shall not. I'll have no nonsense of the kind for years to come. She shall not marry a day before she is twenty-one, I had nearly said twenty-five; and I don't think I'll allow it before then."

Rose laughed. "My dear, do you know what my age was when you married me?"

"Twenty-one, you told me."

"Don't you think my father ought then to have kept us waiting four years longer?"

"No," he answered, stooping to stroke her hair, and snatch a kiss from her rich red lips.

She looked up smilingly into his face. "Ah, consistency is a jewel! and pray how old were you when you married the first time? and what was then the age of Elsie's mother?"

"Your arguments are not unanswerable, Mrs. Dinsmore. Your father could spare you, having several other daughters; I have but one, and can't spare her. Elsie's mother was not older when I married her, it is true, than Elsie is now, but was much more mature, and had neither the happy home nor the doting father her daughter has. And as for myself, though much too young to marry, I was a year older than this Herbert Carrington; and I was in sound and vigorous health, while he, poor fellow, is sadly crippled, and likely always to be an invalid, and very unlikely to live to so much as see his majority. Do you think I ought for a moment to contemplate allowing Elsie to sacrifice herself to him?"

"It would seem a terrible sacrifice; and yet after all it will depend very much upon the state of her own feelings."

"If she were five or six years older, I should say yes to that; but girls of her age are not fit to choose a companion for life; taste and judgment are not matured, and the man who pleases them now may be utterly repugnant to them in after years. Is not that so?"

"Yes; and I think your decision is wise and kind. Still, I am sorry for the poor boy, and hope you will deal very gently and kindly with him."

"I shall certainly try to do so. I pity him, and cannot blame him for fancying my lovely daughter--I really don't see how he or any young fellow can help it, but he can't have her, and of course I must tell him so. I must see Elsie first however, and have already sent her a note ordering her home immediately."

"Come into my room for a little, dear," Mrs. Norris whispered to Elsie as they rose from the dinner table. "Herbert must not expect to monopolize all your time."

It turned out that all the old lady wanted was an opportunity to express her delight in the prospect of some day claiming Elsie as her granddaughter, and to pet and fondle her a little. Mr. Norris did his share of that also, and when at length they let her go she encountered Mr. Carrington in the hall, and had to submit to some thing more of the same sort from him.

"We are all heartily rejoiced, little Elsie," he said, "all of us who know the secret; it is to be kept from the children, of course, till your father's consent has made all certain. But there is Lucy looking for you; Herbert has sent her, I daresay. No doubt he grudges every moment that you are out of his sight."

That was true, and his glad look, as she took her accustomed place by the side of his couch, was pleasant to see. But he was not selfish in his happiness, and seemed well satisfied to share Elsie's society with his sister.

The three were making very merry together, when a servant from the Oaks was seen riding leisurely up the avenue. He had some small white object in his hand which he began waving about his head the moment he saw that he had attracted their attention.

"It's a letter!" exclaimed Lucy. "Han, Scip," to the two little blacks who, as usual, were tumbling over each other on the grass near by, "run, one of you and get it, quick now!"

"What--who--Miss Lucy?" they cried, jumping up.

"Yonder; don't you see Mr. Dinsmore's man with a letter? Run and get it, quick!"

"Yes'm!" and both scampered off in the direction of the horseman, who, suddenly urging on his steed, was now rapidly nearing the house.

"Hollo! dar now, you ole Jim!" shouted Scip, making a dash at the horse, "who dat lettah fur? You gub um to me."

A contemptuous sniff was the only answer, and dashing by them, Jim drew rein close to the veranda. "Massa he send dis for you, Miss Elsie," he said, holding out the letter to her.

She sprang forward, took it from his hand and hastily tore open the envelope, the rich color coming and going in her cheek. A glance was sufficient, and turning her flushed face to the anxious, expectant Herbert: "Papa has sent for me to return home immediately," she said; "I must go."

"Oh, Elsie, must you indeed? and is there no word for me--none at all?"

"Yes, he says you shall hear from him to-day or to-morrow."

She had gone close to him and was speaking in a low tone that the servants might not hear. Herbert took both her hands in his. "Oh, I am so sorry! You were to have stayed two days longer. I fear this sudden recall does not argue well for me. Is he angry, do you think?"

"I don't know, I can't tell. The note is simply an order for me to come home at once and the message to you that I have given; nothing more at all. Jim is to see me safely to the Oaks." Then turning to the messenger, "Go and saddle Glossy, and bring her round at once, Jim," she said.

"Yes, Miss Elsie, hab her roun' in less dan no time."

"Go with Jim to the stables, Han," said Herbert, sighing as he spoke.

"Elsie, I can't bear to have you leave us so suddenly," cried Lucy; "it does seem too bad of your father, after giving you permission to stay a whole week, to go and dock off two days."

"But papa has a right, and I can't complain. I've nothing to do but obey. I'll go up and have my riding-habit put on, while Glossy is being saddled."

"Miss Elsie," said Jim, leisurely dismounting, "massa say de wagon be here in 'bout an hour for de trunk, an' Aunt Chloe mus' hab 'em ready by dat time; herself too."

"Very well, she shall do so," and with another whispered word to Herbert, Elsie went into the house, Lucy going with her.

"Why, my dear, this is very sudden, is it not?" exclaimed Mrs. Carrington, meeting her young guest as she came down dressed for her ride. "I thought you were to stay a week, and hoped you were enjoying your visit as much as we were."

"Thank you, dear Mrs. Carrington; I have had a delightful time, but papa has sent for me."

"And like a good child, you obey at once."

"My father's daughter would never dare to do otherwise," replied Elsie, smiling; "though I hope I should not, if I did dare."

"You'll come again soon--often, till I can get strength to go to you?" Herbert said entreatingly, as he held her hand in parting. "And we'll correspond, won't we? I should like to write and receive a note every day when we do not meet."

"I don't know; I can promise nothing till I have asked permission of papa."

"But if he allows it?"

"If he allows it, yes; good-bye."

Dearly as Elsie loved her father, she more than half dreaded the meeting with him now; so entirely uncertain was she how he would feel in regard to this matter.

He was on the veranda, watching for her. Lifting her from her horse, he led her into his study. Then putting an arm about her waist, his other hand under her chin so that her blushing, downcast face was fully exposed to his gaze, "What does all this mean?" he asked. "Look up into my face and tell me if it is really true that you want me to give you away? if it is possible that you love that boy better than your father?"

She lifted her eyes as he bade her, but dropped them again instantly; then as he finished his sentence, "Oh, no, no, papa! not half so well; how could you think it?" she cried, throwing her arms about his neck, and hiding her face on his breast.

"Ah, is that so?" he said, with a low, gleeful laugh, as he held her close to his heart. "But he says you accepted him on condition that papa would give consent, that you owned you cared for him."

"And so I do, papa; I've always loved him as if he were my brother; and I'm so sorry for all he suffers, that I would do anything I could to make him happy."

"Even to sacrificing yourself? It is well indeed for you that you have a father to take care of you."

"Are you going to say 'No' to him, papa?" she asked, looking up half beseechingly.

"Indeed I am."

"Ah, papa, he said it would kill him if you did."

"I don't believe it; people don't die so easily. And I have several reasons for my refusal, each one of which would be quite sufficient of itself. But you just acknowledged to me that you don't love him at all as you ought. Why, my child, when you meet the right person you will find that your love for him is far greater than what you feel for me."

"Papa, I don't think that could be possible," she said, clinging closer to him than before.

"But you'll be convinced when the time comes, though I hope that will not be for many a long year yet. Then Herbert's ill health and lameness are two insuperable objections. Lastly, you are both entirely too young to be thinking of such matters."

"He didn't mean to ask you to give me to him now, papa; not for a year or two at the very least."

"But I won't have you engaging yourself while you are such a mere child. I don't approve of long engagements, or intend to let you marry for six or seven years to come. So you may as well dismiss all thoughts on the subject; and if any other boy or man attempts to talk to you as Herbert has, just tell him that your father utterly forbids you to listen to anything of the kind. What! crying! I hope these are not rebellious tears?"

"No, papa; please don't be angry. It is only that I feel so sorry for poor Herbert; he suffers so, and is so patient and good."

"I am sorry for him too, but it cannot be helped. I must take care of you first, and not allow anything which I think will interfere with your happiness or well being."

"Papa, he wants to correspond with me."

"I shall not allow it."

"May we see each other often?"

"No; not at all for some time. He must get over this foolish fancy first, it cannot be anything more; and there is great danger that he will not unless you are kept entirely apart."

Elsie sighed softly, but said not a word. There was no appeal from her father's decisions, no argument or entreaty allowed after they were once announced.

Little feet were heard running down the hall; then there was the sound of a tiny fist thumping on the door, and the voice of little Horace calling, "Elsie, Elsie, turn out! me wants to see you!"

"There, you may go now," her father said, releasing her with a kiss, "and leave me to write that note. Well, what is it?" for she lingered, looking up wistfully into his face.

"Dear papa, be kind to him for my sake," she murmured softly, putting her arm about his neck again. "He is such a sufferer, so patient and good, and it quite makes my heart ache to think how grievously your refusal will pain him."

"My own sweet child! always unselfish, always concerned for the happiness of others," thought the father as he looked down into the pleading face; but he only stroked her hair, and kissed her more tenderly than before, saying, "I shall try to be as kind as circumstances will allow, daughter. You shall read the letter when it is done, and if you think it is not kind enough it shall not be sent."

She thanked him with a very grateful look, then hurried away, for the tiny fists were redoubling their blows upon the door, while the baby voice called more and more clamorously for "sister Elsie."

She stooped to hug and kiss the little fellow, then was led off in triumph to "mamma," whose greeting, though less noisy, was quite as joyous and affectionate.

"Oh, how nice it is to get home!" cried Elsie, and wondered within herself how she had been contented to stay away so long. She had hardly finished giving Rose an animated account of her visit, including a minute description of the birthday party, when her father's voice summoned her to the study again.

"Does it satisfy you?" he asked when she had read the note.

"Yes, papa; I think it is as kind as a refusal could possibly be made."

"Then I shall send it at once. And now this settles the matter, and I bid you put the whole affair out of your mind as completely as possible, Elsie."

"I shall try, papa," she answered in a submissive and even cheerful tone.

That note, kindly worded though it was, caused great distress to Herbert Carrington. He passed an almost sleepless night, and the next morning, finding himself quite unable to rise from his couch, he sent an urgent entreaty that Mr. Dinsmore would call at Ashlands at his earliest convenience.

His request was granted at once, and the lad pleaded with all the eloquence of which he was master for a more favorable reception of his suit.

Had he been as well acquainted with Horace Dinsmore's character as Elsie was, he would have known the utter uselessness of such a proceeding. He received a patient hearing, then a firm, though kind denial. Elsie was entirely too young to be allowed even to think of love or matrimony, her father said; he was extremely sorry the subject had been broached to her; it must not be again for years. He would not permit any engagement, correspondence, or, for the present at least, any exchange of visits; because he wished the matter to be dropped entirely, and, if possible, forgotten. Nor would he hold out the slightest hope for the future; answering Herbert's petition for that by a gentle hint that one in his ill health should be content to remain single.

"Yes, you are right, Mr. Dinsmore, and I don't blame you for refusing to give me your lovely daughter; I'm entirely unworthy of such a treasure," said the poor boy in a broken voice.

"Not in character, my dear boy," said Mr. Dinsmore, almost tenderly; "in that you are all I could ask or desire, and it is all that you are responsible for. And now while she is such a mere child, I should reject any other suitor for her hand, quite as decidedly as I do you."

"You don't blame me for loving her?"

"No; oh, no!"

"I can't help it. I've loved her ever since I first saw her, and that was before I was five years old."

"Well, I don't object to a brotherly affection, and when you can tone it down to that, shall not forbid occasional intercourse. And now, with the best wishes for your health and happiness, I must bid you good-bye."

"Good-bye, sir; and thank you for your kindness in coming," the boy answered with a quivering lip. Then, turning to his mother, as Mr. Dinsmore left the room, "I shall never get over it," he said. "I shall not live long, and I don't want to; life without her isn't worth having."

Her heart ached for him, but she answered cheerily: "Why, my dear child, don't be so despondent; I think you may take hope and courage from some things that Mr. Dinsmore said. It is quite in your favor that he will not allow Elsie to receive proposals from any one at present, for who knows but, by the time he considers her old enough, you may be well and strong."

Mrs. Carrington's words had a very different effect from what she intended. The next time Herbert saw his physician, he insisted so strongly on knowing exactly what he might look forward to that there was no evading the demand; and on learning that he was hopelessly crippled for life, he sank into a state of utter despondency, and from that moment grew rapidly worse, failing visibly day by day.

Elsie, dutifully abstaining from holding any communication with Ashlands, and giving all her thoughts as far as possible to home duties and pleasures knew nothing of it till one day Enna came in, asking, "Have you heard the news?"

"No," said Elsie, pausing in a game of romps with her little brother; "what is it?"

"It! You should rather say they. There's more than one item of importance." And Enna straightened herself and smoothed out her dress with a very consequential air. "In the first place Arthur has been found out in his evil courses; he's been betting and gambling till he's got himself over head and ears in debt. Papa was so angry, I almost thought he would kill him. But he seemed to cool down after he'd paid off the debts; and Arthur is, or pretends to be, very penitent, promises never to do the like again, and so he's got forgiven, and he and Walter are to start for college early next week. They've both gone to the city to-day with papa. Arthur seems to be mad at you; he says that you could have saved him from being found out, but didn't choose to, and some day he'll have his revenge. Now, what was it you did, or didn't do?"

"He wanted money, and I refused to lend it because papa had forbidden me."

"You're good at minding, and always were," was Enna's sneering comment. "No, I'll take that back; I forgot that time when you nearly died rather than mind."

An indignant flush suffused Elsie's fair face for an instant; but the sneer was borne in utter silence. Rose entered the room at that moment, and, having returned her greeting, Enna proceeded to give another important bit of news.

"Herbert Carrington is very ill; not confined to his bed, but failing very fast. The doctors advised them to take him from home; because they said they thought he had something on his mind, and taking him into new scenes might help him to forget it. They think he's not likely to live long anyhow, but that is the last hope. His mother and Lucy started North with him this morning."

Elsie suddenly dropped the ball she was tossing for Horace and ran out of the room.

"Why, what did she do that for?" asked Enna, in a tone of surprise, turning to Rose for an explanation. "Is she in love with him, do you suppose?"

"No, I know she is not; but I think she has a strong sisterly regard for him, and I am sorry the news of his increased illness was told her so abruptly."

"Such a baby, as she always was," muttered Enna, "crying her eyes out about the least little thing."

"If she lacks sufficient control over her feelings it is almost the only fault she has," replied Rose warmly. "And I think, Enna, you are hardly capable of appreciating her delicately sensitive nature, and warm, loving heart, else you would not wound her as you do. She certainly controls her temper well, and puts up with more from you than I should."

"Pray, what do you mean, Mrs. Dinsmore? what have I done to your pet?" asked the young lady angrily.

"She is older than you, yet you treat her as if she were much younger. Your manner toward her is often very contemptuous, and I have frequently heard you sneer at her principles and taunt her with her willing subjection to her father's strict rule; for which she deserves nothing but the highest praise."

"Nobody could ever rule me the way Horace does her!" cried Enna, with a toss of her head. "And as to her being older than I am, I'm sure no one would think it; she is so absurdly childish in her way; not half so mature as I, mamma says."

"I'm glad and thankful that she is not," answered Rose, with spirit; "her sweet childish simplicity and perfect naturalness are very charming in these days, when they are so rarely found in a girl who has entered her teens."

Little Horace, standing by the window, uttered a joyous shout, "Oh, papa tumin'!" and rushed from the room to return the next moment clinging to his father's hand, announcing as they came in together, "Here papa is; me found him!"

Mr. Dinsmore shook hands with his sister, addressed a remark to his wife, then, glancing about the room, asked, "Where is Elsie?"

"She left us a moment since, but did not say where she was going," said Rose.

"I presume you'll find her crying in her boudoir or dressing room," added Enna.

"Crying! Why, what is wrong with her?"

"Nothing that I know of, except that I told her of Herbert Carrington's being so much worse that they've taken him North as a last hope."

"Is that so?" and Mr. Dinsmore looked much concerned.

"Yes, there can be no doubt about it, for I heard it from Harry himself this morning."

Mr. Dinsmore rose, and, putting his little son gently aside, left the room.

Elsie was not in her own apartments; he passed through the whole suite, looking for her; then, going on into the grounds, found her at last in her favorite arbor. She was crying bitterly, but at the sound of his step checked her sobs, and hastily wiped away her tears. She thought he would reprove her for indulging her grief, but instead he took her in his arms and soothed her tenderly.

"Oh, papa," she sobbed, "I feel as if I had done it--as if I had killed him."

"Darling, he is not past hope; he may recover, and in any event not the slightest blame belongs to you. I have taken the whole responsibility; upon my shoulders."

She gave him a somewhat relieved and very grateful look, and he went on: "And even if I had allowed you to decide the matter for yourself, you would have done what was your duty in refusing to promise to belong to one whom you love less than you love your father."

Some months later there came news of Herbert's death. Elsie's grief was deep and lasting. She sorrowed as she might have done for the loss of a very dear brother; while added to that was a half-remorseful feeling which reason could not control or entirely relieve; and it was long ere she was quite her own bright, gladsome sunny self again.