The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green
Book III. Hannah
XXXII. Mrs. Belden's Narrative
"Cursed, destructive Avarice, Thou everlasting foe to Love and Honor." --Trap's Atram. "Mischief never thrives Without the help of Woman. --The Same.
It will be a year next July since I first saw Mary Leavenworth. J was living at that time a most monotonous existence. Loving what was beautiful, hating what was sordid, drawn by nature towards all that was romantic and uncommon, but doomed by my straitened position and the loneliness of my widowhood to spend my days in the weary round of plain sewing, I had begun to think that the shadow of a humdrum old age was settling down upon me, when one morning, in the full tide of my dissatisfaction, Mary Leavenworth stepped across the threshold of my door and, with one smile, changed the whole tenor of my life.
This may seem exaggeration to you, especially when I say that her errand was simply one of business, she having heard I was handy with my needle; but if you could have seen her as she appeared that day, marked the look with which she approached me, and the smile with which she left, you would pardon the folly of a romantic old woman, who beheld a fairy queen in this lovely young lady. The fact is, I was dazzled by her beauty and her charms. And when, a few days after, she came again, and crouching down on the stool at my feet, said she was so tired of the gossip and tumult down at the hotel, that it was a relief to run away and hide with some one who would let her act like the child she was, I experienced for the moment, I believe, the truest happiness of my life. Meeting her advances with all the warmth her manner invited, I found her ere long listening eagerly while I told her, almost without my own volition, the story of my past life, in the form of an amusing allegory.
The next day saw her in the same place; and the next; always with the eager, laughing eyes, and the fluttering, uneasy hands, that grasped everything they touched, and broke everything they grasped.
But the fourth day she was not there, nor the fifth, nor the sixth, and I was beginning to feel the old shadow settling back upon me, when one night, just as the dusk of twilight was merging into evening gloom, she came stealing in at the front door, and, creeping up to my side, put her hands over my eyes with such a low, ringing laugh, that I started.
"You don't know what to make of me!" she cried, throwing aside her cloak, and revealing herself in the full splendor of evening attire. "I don't know what to make of myself. Though it seems folly, I felt that I must run away and tell some one that a certain pair of eyes have been looking into mine, and that for the first time in my life I feel myself a woman as well as a queen." And with a glance in which coyness struggled with pride, she gathered up her cloak around her, and laughingly cried:
"Have you had a visit from a flying sprite? Has one little ray of moonlight found its way into your prison for a wee moment, with Mary's laugh and Mary's snowy silk and flashing diamonds? Say!" and she patted my cheek, and smiled so bewilderingly, that even now, with all the dull horror of these after-events crowding upon me, I cannot but feel something like tears spring to my eyes at the thought of it.
"And so the Prince has come for you?" I whispered, alluding to a story I had told her the last time she had visited me; a story in which a girl, who had waited all her life in rags and degradation for the lordly knight who was to raise her from a hovel to a throne, died just as her one lover, an honest peasant-lad whom she had discarded in her pride, arrived at her door with the fortune he had spent all his days in amassing for her sake.
But at this she flushed, and drew back towards the door. "I don't know; I am afraid not. I--I don't think anything about that. Princes are not so easily won," she murmured.
"What! are you going?" I said, "and alone? Let me accompany you."
But she only shook her fairy head, and replied: "No, no; that would be spoiling the romance, indeed. I have come upon you like a sprite, and like a sprite I will go." And, flashing like the moonbeam she was, she glided out into the night, and floated away down the street.
When she next came, I observed a feverish excitement in her manner, which assured me, even plainer than the coy sweetness displayed in our last interview, that her heart had been touched by her lover's attentions. Indeed, she hinted as much before she left, saying in a melancholy tone, when I had ended my story in the usual happy way, with kisses and marriage, "I shall never marry!" finishing the exclamation with a long-drawn sigh, that somehow emboldened me to say, perhaps because I knew she had no mother:
"And why? What reason can there be for such rosy lips saying their possessor will never marry?"
She gave me one quick look, and then dropped her eyes. I feared I had offended her, and was feeling very humble, when she suddenly replied, in an even but low tone, "I said I should never marry, because the one man who pleases me can never be my husband."
All the hidden romance in my nature started at once into life. "Why not? What do you mean? Tell me."
"There is nothing to tell," said she; "only I have been so weak as to"--she would not say, fall in love, she was a proud woman-- "admire a man whom my uncle will never allow me to marry."
And she rose as if to go; but I drew her back. "Whom your uncle will not allow you to marry!" I repeated. "Why? because he is poor?"
"No; uncle loves money, but not to such an extent as that. Besides, Mr. Clavering is not poor. He is the owner of a beautiful place in his own country----"
"Own country?" I interrupted. "Is he not an American?"
"No," she returned; "he is an Englishman."
I did not see why she need say that in just the way she did, but, supposing she was aggravated by some secret memory, went on to inquire: "Then what difficulty can there be? Isn't he--" I was going to say steady, but refrained.
"He is an Englishman," she emphasized in the same bitter tone as before. "In saying that, I say it all. Uncle will never let me marry an Englishman."
I looked at her in amazement. Such a puerile reason as this had never entered my mind.
"He has an absolute mania on the subject," resumed she. "I might as well ask him to allow me to drown myself as to marry an Englishman."
A woman of truer judgment than myself would have said: "Then, if that is so, why not discard from your breast all thought of him? Why dance with him, and talk to him, and let your admiration develop into love?" But I was all romance then, and, angry at a prejudice I could neither understand nor appreciate, I said:
"But that is mere tyranny! Why should he hate the English so? And why, if he does, should you feel yourself obliged to gratify him in a whim so unreasonable?"
"Why? Shall I tell you, auntie?" she said, flushing and looking away.
"Yes," I returned; "tell me everything."
"Well, then, if you want to know the worst of me, as you already know the best, I hate to incur my uncle's displeasure, because--because--I have always been brought up to regard myself as his heiress, and I know that if I were to marry contrary to his wishes, he would instantly change his mind, and leave me penniless."
"But," I cried, my romance a little dampened by this admission, "you tell me Mr. Clavering has enough to live upon, so you would not want; and if you love--"
Her violet eyes fairly flashed in her amazement.
"You don't understand," she said; "Mr. Clavering is not poor; but uncle is rich. I shall be a queen--" There she paused, trembling, and falling on my breast. "Oh, it sounds mercenary, I know, but it is the fault of my bringing up. I have been taught to worship money. I would be utterly lost without it. And yet"--her whole face softening with the light of another emotion, "I cannot say to Henry Clavering, 'Go! my prospects are dearer to me than you!' I cannot, oh, I cannot!"
"You love him, then?" said I, determined to get at the truth of the matter if possible.
She rose restlessly. "Isn't that a proof of love? If you knew me, you would say it was." And, turning, she took her stand before a picture that hung on the wall of my sitting-room.
"That looks like me," she said.
It was one of a pair of good photographs I possessed.
"Yes," I remarked, "that is why I prize it."
She did not seem to hear me; she was absorbed in gazing at the exquisite face before her. "That is a winning face," I heard her say. "Sweeter than mine. I wonder if she would ever hesitate between love and money. I do not believe she would," her own countenance growing gloomy and sad as she said so; "she would think only of the happiness she would confer; she is not hard like me. Eleanore herself would love this girl."
I think she had forgotten my presence, for at the mention of her cousin's name she turned quickly round with a half suspicious look, saying lightly:
"My dear old Mamma Hubbard looks horrified. She did not know she had such a very unromantic little wretch for a listener, when she was telling all those wonderful stories of Love slaying dragons, and living in caves, and walking over burning ploughshares as if they were tufts of spring grass?"
"No," I said, taking her with an irresistible impulse of admiring affection into my arms; "but if I had, it would have made no difference. I should still have talked about love, and of all it can do to make this weary workaday world sweet and delightful."
"Would you? Then you do not think me such a wretch?"
What could I say? I thought her the winsomest being in the world, and frankly told her so. Instantly she brightened into her very gayest self. Not that I thought then, much less do I think now, she partiallaly cared for my good opinion; but her nature demanded admiration, and unconsciously blossomed under it, as a flower under the sunshine.
"And you will still let me come and tell you how bad I am,--that is, if I go on being bad, as I doubtless shall to the end of the chapter? You will not turn me off?"
"I will never turn you off."
"Not if I should do a dreadful thing? Not if I should run away with my lover some fine night, and leave uncle to discover how his affectionate partiality had been requited?"
It was lightly said, and lightly meant, for she did not even wait for my reply. But its seed sank deep into our two hearts for all that. And for the next few days I spent my time in planning how I should manage, if it should ever fall to my lot to conduct to a successful issue so enthralling a piece of business as an elopement. You may imagine, then, how delighted I was, when one evening Hannah, this unhappy girl who is now lying dead under my roof, and who was occupying the position of lady's maid to Miss Mary Leavenworth at that time, came to my door with a note from her mistress, running thus:
Which short note could only mean that she was engaged. But the next day did not bring me my Mary, nor the next, nor the next; and beyond hearing that Mr. Leavenworth had returned from his trip I received neither word nor token. Two more days dragged by, when, just as twilight set in, she came. It had been a week since I had seen her, but it might have been a year from the change I observed in her countenance and expression. I could scarcely greet her with any show of pleasure, she was so unlike her former self.
"You are disappointed, are you not?" said she, looking at me. "You expected revelations, whispered hopes, and all manner of sweet confidences; and you see, instead, a cold, bitter woman, who for the first time in your presence feels inclined to be reserved and uncommunicative."
"That is because you have had more to trouble than encourage you in your love," I returned, though not without a certain shrinking, caused more by her manner than words.
She did not reply to this, but rose and paced the floor, coldly at first, but afterwards with a certain degree of excitement that proved to be the prelude to a change in her manner; for, suddenly pausing, she turned to me and said: "Mr. Clavering has left R----, Mrs. Belden."
"Yes, my uncle commanded me to dismiss him, and I obeyed."
The work dropped from my hands, in my heartfelt disappointment. "Ah! then he knows of your engagement to Mr. Clavering?"
"Yes; he had not been in the house five minutes before Eleanore told him."
"Then she knew?"
"Yes," with a half sigh. "She could hardly help it. I was foolish enough to give her the cue in my first moment of joy and weakness. I did not think of the consequences; but I might have known. She is so conscientious."
"I do not call it conscientiousness to tell another's secrets," I returned.
"That is because you are not Eleanore."
Not having a reply for this, I said, "And so your uncle did not regard your engagement with favor?"
"Favor! Did I not tell you he would never allow me to marry an Englishman? He said he would sooner see me buried."
"And you yielded? Made no struggle? Let the hard, cruel man have his way?"
She was walking off to look again at that picture which had attracted her attention the time before, but at this word gave me one little sidelong look that was inexpressibly suggestive.
"I obeyed him when he commanded, if that is what you mean."
"And dismissed Mr. Clavering after having given him your word of honor to be his wife?"
"Why not, when I found I could not keep my word."
"Then you have decided not to marry him?"
She did not reply at once, but lifted her face mechanically to the picture.
"My uncle would tell you that I had decided to be governed wholly by his wishes!" she responded at last with what I felt was self-scornful bitterness.
Greatly disappointed, I burst into tears. "Oh, Mary!" I cried, "Oh, Mary!" and instantly blushed, startled that I had called her by her first name.
But she did not appear to notice.
"Have you any complaint to make?" she asked. "Is it not my manifest duty to be governed by my uncle's wishes? Has he not brought me up from childhood? lavished every luxury upon me? made me all I am, even to the love of riches which he has instilled into my soul with every gift he has thrown into my lap, every word he has dropped into my ear, since I was old enough to know what riches meant? Is it for me now to turn my back upon fostering care so wise, beneficent, and free, just because a man whom I have known some two weeks chances to offer me in exchange what he pleases to call his love?"
"But," I feebly essayed, convinced perhaps by the tone of sarcasm in which this was uttered that she was not far from my way of thinking after all, "if in two weeks you have learned to love this man more than everything else, even the riches which make your uncle's favor a thing of such moment--"
"Well," said she, "what then?"
"Why, then I would say, secure your happiness with the man of your choice, if you have to marry him in secret, trusting to your influence over your uncle to win the forgiveness he never can persistently deny."
You should have seen the arch expression which stole across her face at that. "Would it not be better," she asked, creeping to my arms, and laying her head on my shoulder, "would it not be better for me to make sure of that uncle's favor first, before undertaking the hazardous experiment of running away with a too ardent lover?"
Struck by her manner, I lifted her face and looked at it. It was one amused smile.
"Oh, my darling," said I, "you have not, then dismissed Mr. Clavering?"
"I have sent him away," she whispered demurely.
"But not without hope?"
She burst into a ringing laugh.
"Oh, you dear old Mamma Hubbard; what a matchmaker you are, to be sure! You appear as much interested as if you were the lover yourself."
"But tell me," I urged.
In a moment her serious mood returned. "He will wait for me," said she.
The next day I submitted to her the plan I had formed for her clandestine intercourse with Mr. Clavering. It was for them both to assume names, she taking mine, as one less liable to provoke conjecture than a strange name, and he that of LeRoy Robbins. The plan pleased her, and with the slight modification of a secret sign being used on the envelope, to distinguish her letters from mine, was at once adopted.
And so it was I took the fatal step that has involved me in all this trouble. With the gift of my name to this young girl to use as she would and sign what she would, I seemed to part with what was left me of judgment and discretion. Henceforth, I was only her scheming, planning, devoted slave; now copying the letters which she brought me, and enclosing them to the false name we had agreed upon, and now busying myself in devising ways to forward to her those which I received from him, without risk of discovery. Hannah was the medium we employed, as Mary felt it would not be wise for her to come too often to my house. To this girl's charge, then, I gave such notes as I could not forward in any other way, secure in the reticence of her nature, as well as in her inability to read, that these letters addressed to Mrs. Amy Belden would arrive at their proper destination without mishap. And. I believe they always did. At all events, no difficulty that I ever heard of arose out of the use of this girl as a go-between.
But a change was at hand. Mr. Clavering, who had left an invalid mother in England, was suddenly summoned home. He prepared to go, but, flushed with love, distracted by doubts, smitten with the fear that, once withdrawn from the neighborhood of a woman so universally courted as Mary, he would stand small chance of retaining his position in her regard, he wrote to her, telling his fears and asking her to marry him before he went.
"Make me your husband, and I will follow your wishes in all things," he wrote. "The certainty that you are mine will make parting possible; without it, I cannot go; no, not if my mother should die without the comfort of saying good-bye to her only child."
By some chance she was in my house when I brought this letter from the post-office, and I shall never forget how she started when she read it. But, from looking as if she had received an insult, she speedily settled down into a calm consideration of the subject, writing and delivering into my charge for copying a few lines in which she promised to accede to his request, if he would agree to leave the public declaration of the marriage to her discretion, and consent to bid her farewell at the door of the church or wherever the ceremony of marriage should take place, never to come into her presence again till such declaration had been made. Of course this brought in a couple of days the sure response: "Anything, so you will be mine."
And Amy Belden's wits and powers of planning were all summoned into requisition for the second time, to devise how this matter could be arranged without subjecting the parties to the chance of detection. I found the thing very difficult. In the first place, it was essential that the marriage should come off within three days, Mr. Clavering having, upon the receipt of her letter, secured his passage upon a steamer that sailed on the following Saturday; and, next, both he and Miss Leavenworth were too conspicuous in their personal appearance to make it at all possible for them to be secretly married anywhere within gossiping distance of this place. And yet it was desirable that the scene of the ceremony should not be too far away, or the time occupied in effecting the journey to and from the place would necessitate an absence from the hotel on the part of Miss Leavenworth long enough to arouse the suspicions of Eleanore; something which Mary felt it wiser to avoid. Her uncle, I have forgotten to say, was not here--having gone away again shortly after the apparent dismissal of Mr. Clavering. F----, then, was the only town I could think of which combined the two advantages of distance and accessibility. Although upon the railroad, it was an insignificant place, and had, what was better yet, a very obscure man for its clergyman, living, which was best of all, not ten rods from the depot. If they could meet there? Making inquiries, I found that it could be done, and, all alive to the romance of the occasion, proceeded to plan the details.
And now I am coming to what might have caused the overthrow of the whole scheme: I allude to the detection on the part of Eleanore of the correspondence between Mary and Mr. Clavering. It happened thus. Hannah, who, in her frequent visits to my house, had grown very fond of my society, had come in to sit with me for a while one evening. She had not been in the house, however, more than ten minutes, before there came a knock at the front door; and going to it I saw Mary, as I supposed, from the long cloak she wore, standing before me. Thinking she had come with a letter for Mr. Clavering, I grasped her arm and drew her into the hall, saying, "Have you got it? I must post it to-night, or he will not receive it in time."
There I paused, for, the panting creature I had by the arm turning upon me, I saw myself confronted by a stranger.
"You have made a mistake," she cried. "I am Eleanore Leavenworth, and I have come for my girl Hannah. Is she here?"
I could only raise my hand in apprehension, and point to the girl sitting in the corner of the room before her. Miss Leavenworth immediately turned back.
"Hannah, I want you," said she, and would have left the house without another word, but I caught her by the arm.
"Oh, miss--" I began, but she gave me such a look, I dropped her arm.
"I have nothing to say to you!" she cried in a low, thrilling voice. "Do not detain me." And, with a glance to see if Hannah were following her, she went out.
For an hour I sat crouched on the stair just where she had left me. Then I went to bed, but I did not sleep a wink that night. You can imagine, then, my wonder when, with the first glow of the early morning light, Mary, looking more beautiful than ever, came running up the steps and into the room where I was, with the letter for Mr. Clavering trembling in her hand.
"Oh!" I cried in my joy and relief, "didn't she understand me, then?"
The gay look on Mary's face turned to one of reckless scorn. "If you mean Eleanore, yes. She is duly initiated, Mamma Hubbard. Knows that I love Mr. Clavering and write to him. I couldn't keep it secret after the mistake you made last evening; so I did the next best thing, told her the truth."
"Not that you were about to be married?"
"Certainly not. I don't believe in unnecessary communications."
"And you did not find her as angry as you expected?"
"I will not say that; she was angry enough. And yet," continued Mary, with a burst of self-scornful penitence, "I will not call Eleanore's lofty indignation anger. She was grieved, Mamma Hubbard, grieved." And with a laugh which I believe was rather the result of her own relief than of any wish to reflect on her cousin, she threw her head on one side and eyed me with a look which seemed to say, "Do I plague you so very much, you dear old Mamma Hubbard?"
She did plague me, and I could not conceal it. "And will she not tell her uncle?" I gasped.
The naive expression on Mary's face quickly changed. "No," said she.
I felt a heavy hand, hot with fever, lifted from my heart. "And we can still go on?"
She held out the letter for reply.
The plan agreed upon between us for the carrying out of our intentions was this. At the time appointed, Mary was to excuse herself to her cousin upon the plea that she had promised to take me to see a friend in the next town. She was then to enter a buggy previously ordered, and drive here, where I was to join her. We were then to proceed immediately to the minister's house in F----, where we had reason to believe we should find everything prepared for us. But in this plan, simple as it was, one thing was forgotten, and that was the character of Eleanore's love for her cousin. That her suspicions would be aroused we did not doubt; but that she would actually follow Mary up and demand an explanation of her conduct, was what neither she, who knew her so well, nor I, who knew her so little, ever imagined possible. And yet that was just what occurred. But let me explain. Mary, who had followed out the programme to the point of leaving a little note of excuse on Eleanore's dressing-table, had come to my house, and was just taking off her long cloak to show me her dress, when there came a commanding knock at the front door. Hastily pulling her cloak about her I ran to open it, intending, you may be sure, to dismiss my visitor with short ceremony, when I heard a voice behind me say, "Good heavens, it is Eleanore!" and, glancing back, saw Mary looking through the window-blind upon the porch without.
"What shall we do?" I cried, in very natural dismay.
"Do? why, open the door and let her in; I am not afraid of Eleanore."
I immediately did so, and Eleanore Leavenworth, very pale, but with a resolute countenance, walked into the house and into this room, confronting Mary in very nearly the same spot where you are now sitting. "I have come," said she, lifting a face whose expression of mingled sweetness and power I could not but admire, even in that moment of apprehension, "to ask you without any excuse for my request, if you will allow me to accompany you upon your drive this morning?"
Mary, who had drawn herself up to meet some word of accusation or appeal, turned carelessly away to the glass. "I am very sorry," she said, "but the buggy holds only two, and I shall be obliged to refuse."
"I will order a carriage."
"But I do not wish your company, Eleanore. We are off on a pleasure trip, and desire to have our fun by ourselves."
"And you will not allow me to accompany you?"
"I cannot prevent your going in another carriage."
Eleanore's face grew yet more earnest in its expression. "Mary," said she, "we have been brought up together. I am your sister in affection if not in blood, and I cannot see you start upon this adventure with no other companion than this woman. Then tell me, shall I go with you, as a sister, or on the road behind you as the enforced guardian of your honor against your will?"
"You are going to meet Mr. Clavering."
"Twenty miles from home."
"Now is it discreet or honorable in you to do this?"
Mary's haughty lip took an ominous curve. "The same hand that raised you has raised me," she cried bitterly.
"This is no time to speak of that," returned Eleanore.
Mary's countenance flushed. All the antagonism of her nature was aroused. She looked absolutely Juno-like in her wrath and reckless menace. "Eleanore," she cried, "I am going to F---- to marry Mr. Clavering! Now do you wish to accompany me?"
Mary's whole manner changed. leaping forward, she grasped her cousin's arm and shook it. "For what reason?" she cried. "What do you intend to do?"
"To witness the marriage, if it be a true one; to step between you and shame if any element of falsehood should come in to affect its legality."
Mary's hand fell from her cousin's arm. "I do not understand you," said she. "I thought you never gave countenance to what you considered wrong."
"Nor do I. Any one who knows me will understand that I do not give my approval to this marriage just because I attend its ceremonial in the capacity of an unwilling witness."
"Then why go?"
"Because I value your honor above my own peace. Because I love our common benefactor, and know that he would never pardon me if I let his darling be married, however contrary her union might be to his wishes, without lending the support of my presence to make the transaction at least a respectable one."
"But in so doing you will be involved in a world of deception-- which you hate."
"Any more so than now?"
"Mr. Clavering does not return with me, Eleanore."
"No, I supposed not."
"I leave him immediately after the ceremony."
Eleanore bowed her head.
"He goes to Europe." A pause.
"And I return home."
"There to wait for what, Mary?"
Mary's face crimsoned, and she turned slowly away.
"What every other girl does under such circumstances, I suppose. The development of more reasonable feelings in an obdurate parent's heart."
Eleanore sighed, and a short silence ensued, broken by Eleanore's suddenly falling upon her knees, and clasping her cousin's hand. "Oh, Mary," she sobbed, her haughtiness all disappearing in a gush of wild entreaty, "consider what you are doing! Think, before it is too late, of the consequences which must follow such an act as this. Marriage founded upon deception can never lead to happiness. Love-- but it is not that. Love would have led you either to have dismissed Mr. Clavering at once, or to have openly accepted the fate which a union with him would bring. Only passion stoops to subterfuge like this. And you," she continued, rising and turning toward me in a sort of forlorn hope very touching to see, "can you see this young motherless girl, driven by caprice, and acknowledging no moral restraint, enter upon the dark and crooked path she is planning for herself, without uttering one word of warning and appeal? Tell me, mother of children dead and buried, what excuse you will have for your own part in this day's work, when she, with her face marred by the sorrows which must follow this deception, comes to you----"
"The same excuse, probably," Mary's voice broke in, chill and strained, "which you will have when uncle inquires how you came to allow such an act of disobedience to be perpetrated in his absence: that she could not help herself, that Mary would gang her ain gait, and every one around must accommodate themselves to it,"
It was like a draught of icy air suddenly poured into a room heated up to fever point. Eleanore stiffened immediately, and drawing back, pale and composed, turned upon her cousin with the remark:
"Then nothing can move you?"
The curling of Mary's lips was her only reply.
Mr. Raymond, I do not wish to weary you with my feelings, but the first great distrust I ever felt of my wisdom in pushing this matter so far came with that curl of Mary's lip. More plainly than Eleanore's words it showed me the temper with which she was entering upon this undertaking; and, struck with momentary dismay, I advanced to speak when Mary stopped me.
"There, now, Mamma Hubbard, don't you go and acknowledge that you are frightened, for I won't hear it. I have promised to marry Henry Clavering to-day, and I am going to keep my word--if I don't love him," she added with bitter emphasis. Then, smiling upon me in a way which caused me to forget everything save the fact that she was going to her bridal, she handed me her veil to fasten. As I was doing this, with very trembling fingers, she said, looking straight at Eleanore:
"You have shown yourself more interested in my fate than I had any reason to expect. Will you continue to display this concern all the way to F----, or may I hope for a few moments of peace in which to dream upon the step which, according to you, is about to hurl upon me such dreadful consequences?"
"If I go with you to F----," Eleanore returned, "it is as a witness, no more. My sisterly duty is done."
"Very well, then," Mary said, dimpling with sudden gayety; "I suppose I shall have to accept the situation. Mamma Hubbard, I am so sorry to disappoint you, but the buggy won't hold three. If you are good you shall be the first to congratulate me when I come home to-night." And, almost before I knew it, the two had taken their seats in the buggy that was waiting at the door. "Good-by," cried Mary, waving her hand from the back; "wish me much joy--of my ride."
I tried to do so, but the words wouldn't come. I could only wave my hand in response, and rush sobbing into the house.
Of that day, and its long hours of alternate remorse and anxiety, I cannot trust myself to speak. Let me come at once to the time when, seated alone in my lamp-lighted room, I waited and watched for the token of their return which Mary had promised me. It came in the shape of Mary herself, who, wrapped in her long cloak, and with her beautiful face aglow with blushes, came stealing into the house just as I was beginning to despair.
A strain of wild music from the hotel porch, where they were having a dance, entered with her, producing such a weird effect upon my fancy that I was not at all surprised when, in flinging off her cloak, she displayed garments of bridal white and a head crowned with snowy roses.
"Oh, Mary!" I cried, bursting into tears; "you are then----"
"Mrs. Henry Clavering, at your service. I'm a bride, Auntie."
"Without a bridal," I murmured, taking her passionately into my embrace.
She was not insensible to my emotion. Nestling close to me, she gave herself up for one wild moment to a genuine burst of tears, saying between her sobs all manner of tender things; telling me how she loved me, and how I was the only one in all the world to whom she dared come on this, her wedding night, for comfort or congratulation, and of how frightened she felt now it was all over, as if with her name she had parted with something of inestimable value.
"And does not the thought of having made some one the proudest of men solace you?" I asked, more than dismayed at this failure of mine to make these lovers happy.
"I don't know," she sobbed. "What satisfaction can it be for him to feel himself tied for life to a girl who, sooner than lose a prospective fortune, subjected him to such a parting?"
"Tell me about it," said I.
But she was not in the mood at that moment. The excitement of the day had been too much for her. A thousand fears seemed to beset her mind. Crouching down on the stool at my feet, she sat with her hands folded and a glare on her face that lent an aspect of strange unreality to her brilliant attire. "How shall I keep it secret! The thought haunts me every moment; how can I keep it secret!"
"Why, is there any danger of its being known?" I inquired. "Were you seen or followed?"
"No," she murmured. "It all went off well, but----"
"Where is the danger, then?"
"I cannot say; but some deeds are like ghosts. They will not be laid; they reappear; they gibber; they make themselves known whether we will or not. I did not think of this before. I was mad, reckless, what you will. But ever since the night has come, I have felt it crushing upon me like a pall that smothers life and youth and love out of my heart. While the sunlight remained I could endure it; but now-- oh, Auntie, I have done something that will keep me in constant fear. I have allied myself to a living apprehension. I have destroyed my happiness."
I was too aghast to speak.
"For two hours I have played at being gay. Dressed in my bridal white, and crowned with roses, I have greeted my friends as if they were wedding-guests, and made believe to myself that all the compliments bestowed upon me--and they are only too numerous--were just so many congratulations upon my marriage. But it was no use; Eleanore knew it was no use. She has gone to her room to pray, while I--I have come here for the first time, perhaps for the last, to fall at some one's feet and cry,--' God have mercy upon me!'"
I looked at her in uncontrollable emotion. "Oh, Mary, have I only succeeded, then, in making you miserable?"
She did not answer; she was engaged in picking up the crown of roses which had fallen from her hair to the floor.
"If I had not been taught to love money so!" she said at length. "If, like Eleanore, I could look upon the splendor which has been ours from childhood as a mere accessory of life, easy to be dropped at the call of duty or affection! If prestige, adulation, and elegant belongings were not so much to me; or love, friendship, and domestic happiness more! If only I could walk a step without dragging the chain of a thousand luxurious longings after me. Eleanore can. Imperious as she often is in her beautiful womanhood, haughty as she can be when the delicate quick of her personality is touched too rudely, I have known her to sit by the hour in a low, chilly, ill-lighted and ill-smelling garret, cradling a dirty child on her knee, and feeding with her own hand an impatient old woman whom no one else would consent to touch. Oh, oh! they talk about repentance and a change of heart! If some one or something would only change mine! But there is no hope of that! no hope of my ever being anything else than what I am: a selfish, wilful, mercenary girl."
Nor was this mood a mere transitory one. That same night she made a discovery which increased her apprehension almost to terror. This was nothing less than the fact that Eleanore had been keeping a diary of the last few weeks. "Oh," she cried in relating this to me the next day, "what security shall I ever feel as long as this diary of hers remains to confront me every time I go into her room? And she will not consent to destroy it, though I have done my best to show her that it is a betrayal of the trust I reposed in her. She says it is all she has to show in the way of defence, if uncle should ever accuse her of treachery to him and his happiness. She promises to keep it locked up; but what good will that do! A thousand accidents might happen, any of them sufficient to throw it into uncle's hands. I shall never feel safe for a moment while it exists."
I endeavored to calm her by saying that if Eleanore was without malice, such fears were groundless. But she would not be comforted, and seeing her so wrought up, I suggested that Eleanore should be asked to trust it into my keeping till such time as she should feel the necessity of using it. The idea struck Mary favorably. "O yes," she cried; "and I will put my certificate with it, and so get rid of all my care at once." And before the afternoon was over, she had seen Eleanore and made her request.
It was acceded to with this proviso, that I was neither to destroy nor give up all or any of the papers except upon their united demand. A small tin box was accordingly procured, into which were put all the proofs of Mary's marriage then existing, viz.: the certificate, Mr. Clavering's letters, and such leaves from Eleanore's diary as referred to this matter. It was then handed over to me with the stipulation I have already mentioned, and I stowed it away in a certain closet upstairs, where it has lain undisturbed till last night.
Here Mrs. Belden paused, and, blushing painfully, raised her eyes to mine with a look in which anxiety and entreaty were curiously blended.
"I don't know what you will say," she began, "but, led away by my fears, I took that box out of its hiding-place last evening and, notwithstanding your advice, carried it from the house, and it is now----"
"In my possession," I quietly finished.
I don't think I ever saw her look more astounded, not even when I told her of Hannah's death. "Impossible!" she exclaimed. "I left it last night in the old barn that was burned down. I merely meant to hide it for the present, and could think of no better place in my hurry; for the barn is said to be haunted--a man hung himself there once -- and no one ever goes there. I--I--you cannot have it!" she cried, "unless----"
"Unless I found and brought it away before the barn was destroyed," I suggested.
Her face flushed deeper. "Then you followed me?"
"Yes," said I. Then, as I felt my own countenance redden, hastened to add: "We have been playing strange and unaccustomed parts, you and I. Some time, when all these dreadful events shall be a mere dream of the past, we will ask each other's pardon. But never mind all this now. The box is safe, and I am anxious to hear the rest of your story."
This seemed to compose her, and after a minute she continued:
Mary seemed more like herself after this. And though, on account of Mr. Leavenworth's return and their subsequent preparations for departure, I saw but little more of her, what I did see was enough to make me fear that, with the locking up of the proofs of her marriage, she was indulging the idea that the marriage itself had become void. But I may have wronged her in this.
The story of those few weeks is almost finished. On the eve of the day before she left, Mary came to my house to bid me good-by. She had a present in her hand the value of which I will not state, as I did not take it, though she coaxed me with all her prettiest wiles. But she said something that night that I have never been able to forget. It was this. I had been speaking of my hope that before two months had elapsed she would find herself in a position to send for Mr. Clavering, and that when that day came I should wish to be advised of it; when she suddenly interrupted me by saying:
"Uncle will never be won upon, as you call it, while he lives. If I was convinced of it before, I am sure of it now. Nothing but his death will ever make it possible for me to send for Mr. Clavering." Then, seeing me look aghast at the long period of separation which this seemed to betoken, blushed a little and whispered: "The prospect looks somewhat dubious, doesn't it? But if Mr. Clavering loves me, he can wait."
"But," said I, "your uncle is only little past the prime of life and appears to be in robust health; it will be years of waiting, Mary."
"I don't know," she muttered, "I think not. Uncle is not as strong as he looks and--" She did not say any more, horrified perhaps at the turn the conversation was taking. But there was an expression on her countenance that set me thinking at the time, and has kept me thinking ever since.
Not that any actual dread of such an occurrence as has since happened came to oppress my solitude during the long months which now intervened. I was as yet too much under the spell of her charm to allow anything calculated to throw a shadow over her image to remain long in my thoughts. But when, some time in the fall, a letter came to me personally from Mr. Clavering, filled with a vivid appeal to tell him something of the woman who, in spite of her vows, doomed him to a suspense so cruel, and when, on the evening of the same day, a friend of mine who had just returned from New York spoke of meeting Mary Leavenworth at some gathering, surrounded by manifest admirers, I began to realize the alarming features of the affair, and, sitting down, I wrote her a letter. Not in the strain in which I had been accustomed to talk to her,--I had not her pleading eyes and trembling, caressing hands ever before me to beguile my judgment from its proper exercise, --but honestly and earnestly, telling her how Mr. Clavering felt, and what a risk she ran in keeping so ardent a lover from his rights. The reply she sent rather startled me.
"I have put Mr. Robbins out of my calculations for the present, and advise you to do the same. As for the gentleman himself, I have told him that when I could receive him I would be careful to notify him. That day has not yet come.
"But do not let him be discouraged," she added in a postscript. "When he does receive his happiness, it will be a satisfying one."
When, I thought. Ah, it is that when which is likely to ruin all! But, intent only upon fulfilling her will, I sat down and wrote a letter to Mr. Clavering, in which I stated what she had said, and begged him to have patience, adding that I would surely let him know if any change took place in Mary or her circumstances. And, having despatched it to his address in London, awaited the development of events.
They were not slow in transpiring. In two weeks I heard of the sudden death of Mr. Stebbins, the minister who had married them; and while yet laboring under the agitation produced by this shock, was further startled by seeing in a New York paper the name of Mr. Clavering among the list of arrivals at the Hoffman House; showing that my letter to him had failed in its intended effect, and that the patience Mary had calculated upon so blindly was verging to its end. I was consequently far from being surprised when, in a couple of weeks or so afterwards, a letter came from him to my address, which, owing to the careless omission of the private mark upon the envelope, I opened, and read enough to learn that, driven to desperation by the constant failures which he had experienced in all his endeavors to gain access to her in public or private, a. failure which he was not backward in ascribing to her indisposition to see him, he had made up his mind to risk everything, even her displeasure; and, by making an appeal to her uncle, end the suspense under which he was laboring, definitely and at once. "I want you," he wrote; "dowered or dowerless, it makes little difference to me. If you will not come of yourself, then I must follow the example of the brave knights, my ancestors; storm the castle that holds you, and carry you off by force of arms."
Neither can I say I was much surprised, knowing Mary as I did, when, in a few days from this, she forwarded to me for copying, this reply: "If Mr. Rob-bins ever expects to be happy with Amy Belden, let him reconsider the determination of which he speaks. Not only would he by such an action succeed in destroying the happiness of her he professes to love, but run the greater risk of effectually annulling the affection which makes the tie between them endurable."
To this there was neither date nor signature. It was the cry of warning which a spirited, self-contained creature gives when brought to bay. It made even me recoil, though I had known from the first that her pretty wilfulness was but the tossing foam floating above the soundless depths of cold resolve and most deliberate purpose.
What its real effect was upon him and her fate I can only conjecture. All I know is that in two weeks thereafter Mr. Leavenworth was found murdered in his room, and Hannah Chester, coming direct to my door from the scene of violence, begged me to take her in and secrete her from public inquiry, as I loved and desired to serve Mary Leavenworth.