Chapter VI. The Serpent.
 

"But I'm sure you will listen to reason, ma'am."

The stranger spoke in a low, persuasive tone; his eyes glanced rapidly hither and thither as he spoke, taking the bearings of house and garden, noting the turn of the road, the distance of the neighboring houses. One would have said he was a surveyor, only he had no instruments with him.

"I am sure you will listen to reason,--a fine, intelligent lady like yourself. Think of it: there is a fortune in this child's voice. There hasn't been such a voice--there's never been such a voice in this country, I'll be bold to say. I know something about voices, ma'am. I've been in the concert business twenty years, and I do assure you I have never heard such a natural voice as this child has. She has a great career before her, I tell you. Money, ma'am! there's thousands in that voice! It sings bank-notes and gold-pieces, every note of it. You'll be a rich woman, and she will be a great singer,--one of the very greatest. Her being blind makes it all the better. I wouldn't have her like other people, not for anything. The blind prima-donna,-- my stars! wouldn't it draw? I see the posters now. 'Nature's greatest marvel, the blind singer! Splendid talent enveloped in darkness.' She will be the success of the day, ma'am. Lord, and to think of my chancing on her here, of all the little out-of-the-way places in the world! Why, three hours ago I was cursing my luck, when my horse lost a shoe and went lame, just outside your pleasant little town here. And now, ma'am, now I count this the most fortunate day of my life! Is the little lady in the house, ma'am? I'd like to have a little talk with her; kind o' open her eyes to what's before her,--her mind's eye, Horatio, eh? Know anything of Shakspeare, ma'am? Is she in the house, I say?"

"She is not," said Miss Vesta Dale, finding her voice at last. "The child is away, and you should not see her if she were here. She is not meant for the sort of thing you talk about. She--she is the same as our own child, my sister's and mine. We mean to keep her by us as long as we live. I thank you," she added, with stately courtesy. "I don't doubt that many might be glad of such a chance, but we are not that kind, my sister and I."

The man's face fell; but the next moment he looked incredulous. "You don't mean what you say, ma'am!" he cried; "you can't mean it! To keep a voice like that shut up in a God-forsaken little hole like this,--oh, you don't know what you're talking about, really you don't.' And think of the advantage to the child herself!" He saw the woman's face change at this, saw that he had made a point, and hastened to pursue it. "What can the child have, if she spends her life here? No education, no pleasure,--nothing. Nice little place, no doubt, for those that are used to it, but--Lord! a child that has the whole world before her, to pick and choose! She must go to Europe, ma'am! She will sing before crowned heads; go to Russia, and be decorated by the Czar. She'll have horses and carriages, jewels, dresses finer than any queen! Patti spends three fortunes a year on her clothes, and this girl has as good a voice as Patti, any day. Why, you have to support her, don't you?--and hard work, too, sometimes, perhaps--her and maybe others?"

Miss Vesta winced; and he saw it. Oh, Rejoice! it was a joy to save and spare, to deny herself any little luxury, that the beloved sister might have everything she fancied. But did she have everything? Was it, could it be possible that this should be done for her sister's sake?

The man pursued his advantage relentlessly. "You are a fine woman, ma'am, if you'll allow me to say so,--a remarkably fine woman. But you are getting on in life, as we all are. This child will support you, ma'am, instead of your supporting her. Support you, do I say? Why, you'll be rolling in wealth in a few years! You spoke of a sister, ma'am. Is she in good health, may I ask?" His quick eye had spied the white-curtained bed through the vine-clad window, and his ear had caught the tender tone of her voice when she said, "my sister."

"My sister is an invalid," said Miss Vesta, coldly.

"Another point!" exclaimed the impresario. "You will be able to have every luxury for your sister,--wines, fruits, travelling, the best medical aid the country affords. You are the--a--the steward, I may say, ma'am,"--with subtle intuition, the man assumed a tone of moral loftiness, as if calling Miss Vesta to account for all delinquencies, past and future,--"the steward, or even the stewardess, of this great treasure. It means everything for you and her, and for your invalid sister as well. Think of it, think of it well! I am so confident of your answer that I can well afford to wait a little. Take a few minutes, ma'am, and think it over."

He leaned against the house in an easy attitude, with his hands in his pockets, and his mouth pursed up for a whistle. He did not feel as confident as he looked, perhaps, but Miss Vesta did not know that. She also leaned against the house, her head resting among the vines that screened Miss Rejoice's window, and thought intensely. What was right? What should she do? Half an hour ago life lay so clear and plain before her; the line of happy duties, simple pleasures, was so straight, leading from the cottage door to that quiet spot in the old burying-ground where she and Rejoice would one day rest side by side. They had taught Melody what they could. She had books in raised print, sent regularly from the institution where she had learned to read and write. She was happy; no child could ever have been happier, Miss Vesta thought, if she had had three pairs of eyes. She was the heart of the village, its pride, its wonder. They had looked forward to a life of simple usefulness and kindliness for her, tending the sick with that marvellous skill which seemed a special gift from Heaven; cheering, comforting, delighting old and young, by the magic of her voice and the gentle spell of her looks and ways. A quiet life, a simple, humdrum life, it might be: they had never thought of that. But now, what picture was this that the stranger had conjured up?

As in a glass, Miss Vesta seemed to see the whole thing. Melody a woman, a great singer, courted, caressed, living like a queen, with everything rich and beautiful about her; jewels in her shining hair, splendid dresses, furs and laces, such as even elderly country women love to dream about sometimes. She saw this; and she saw something else besides. The walls of the little room within seemed to part, to extend; it was no longer a tiny whitewashed closet, but stretched wide and long, rose lofty and airy. There were couches, wheeled chairs, great sunny windows, through which one looked out over lovely gardens; there were pictures, the most beautiful in the world, for those dear eyes to rest on; banks of flowers, costly ornaments, everything that luxury could devise or heart desire. And on one of these splendid couches (oh, she could move as she pleased from one to the other, instead of lying always in the one narrow white bed!),--on one of them lay her sister Rejoice, in a lace wrapper, such as Miss Vesta had read about once in a fashion magazine; all lace, creamy and soft, with delicate ribbons here and there. There she lay; and yet--was it she? Miss Vesta tried hard to give life to this image, to make it smile with her sister's eyes, and speak with her sister's voice; but it had a strange, shadowy look all the time, and whenever she forced the likeness of Rejoice into her mind, somehow it came with the old surroundings, the little white bed, the yellow-washed walls, the old green flag-bottomed chair on which the medicine-cups always stood. But all the other things might be hers, just by Melody's singing. By Melody's singing! Miss Vesta stood very still, her face quiet and stern, as it always was in thought, no sign of the struggle going on within. The stranger was very still too, biding his time, stealing an occasional glance at her face, feeling tolerably sure of success, yet wishing she had not quite such a set look about the mouth.

All by Melody's singing! No effort, no exertion for the child, only the thing she loved best in the world,--the thing she did every day and all day. And all for Rejoice, for Rejoice, whom Melody loved so; for whom the child would count any toil, any privation, merely an added pleasure, even as Vesta herself would. Miss Vesta held her breath, and prayed. Would not God answer for her? She was only a woman, and very weak, though she had never guessed it till now. God knew what the right thing was: would He not speak for her?

She looked up, and saw Melody coming down the road, leading a child in each hand. She was smiling, and the children were laughing, though there were traces of tears on their cheeks; for they had been quarrelling when Melody found them in the fields and brought them away. It was a pretty picture; the stranger's eyes brightened as he gazed at it. But for the first time in her life Miss Vesta was not glad to see Melody. The child began to sing, and the woman listened for the words, with a vague trouble darkening over her perturbed spirit as a thunder-cloud comes blackening a gray sky, filling it with angry mutterings, with quick flashes. What if the child should sing the wrong words, she thought! What were the wrong words, and how should she know whether they were of God or the Devil?

It was an old song that Melody was singing; she knew few others, indeed,--only the last verse of an old song, which Vesta Dale had heard all her life, and had never thought much about, save that it was a good song, one of the kind Rejoice liked.

   "There's a place that is better than this, Robin Ruff,
   And I hope in my heart you'll go there;
   Where the poor man's as great,
   Though he hath no estate,
   Ay, as though he'd a thousand a year, Robin Ruff,
   As though he'd a thousand a year'"

"So you see," said Melody to the children, as they paced along, "it doesn't make any real difference whether we have things or don't have them. It's inside that one has to be happy; one can't be happy from the outside, ever. I should think it would be harder if one had lots of things that one must think about, and take care of, and perhaps worry over. I often am so glad I haven't many things."

They passed on, going down into the little meadow where the sweet rushes grew, for Melody knew that no child could stay cross when it had sweet rushes to play with; and Miss Vesta turned to the stranger with a quick, fierce movement. "Go away!" she cried. "You have your answer. Not for fifty thousand fortunes should you have the child! Go, and never come here again!"

       *       *       *       *       *

It was two or three days after this that Dr. Brown was driving rapidly home toward the village. He had had a tiresome day, and he meant to have a cup of Vesta Dale's good tea and a song from Melody to smooth down his ruffled plumage, and to put him into good-humor again. His patients had been very trying, especially the last one he had visited,--an old lady who sent for him from ten miles' distance, and then told him she had taken seventy-five bottles of Vegetine without benefit, and wanted to know what she should do next. "I really do not know, Madam," the doctor replied, "unless you should pound up the seventy-five bottles with their labels, and take those." Whereupon he got into his buggy and drove off without another word.

But the Dale girls and Melody--bless them all for a set of angels!--would soon put him to rights again, thought the doctor, and he would send old Mrs. Prabbles some pills in the morning. There was nothing whatever the matter with the old harridan. Here was the turn; now in a moment he would see Vesta sitting in the doorway at her knitting, or looking out of Rejoice's window; and she would call the child whom his heart loved, and then for a happy, peaceful evening, and all vexations forgotten!

But what was this? Instead of the trim, staid figure he looked to see, who was this frantic woman who came running toward him from the little house, with white hair flying on the wind, with wild looks? Her dress was disordered; her eyes stared in anguish; her lips stammered, making confused sounds, which at first had no meaning to the startled hearer. But he heard--oh, he heard and understood, when the distracted woman grasped his arm, and cried,--

"Melody is stolen! stolen! and Rejoice is dead!"