One of the Thirty Pieces by William Henry Bishop
In the spring of the year 1870 the premium on gold had fallen so low that it began to be thought by sanguine people that specie payments would be resumed at once. Silver in considerable quantities actually came into circulation. Restaurants, cigar-stands, and establishments dealing in the lighter articles of merchandise paid it out in change, by way of an extra inducement to customers.
On one of these days Henry Barwood, a treasury clerk, and Megilp, the rather well-known picture restorer, met by accident at the door of Gruyere's restaurant. Gruyere's place, although in the business quarter, is not supported to any great extent by the hurrying throng of bankers', brokers', merchants', and lawyers' clerks who overrun the vicinity every day at lunch-time. It is a rather leisurely resort, frequented by well-to-do importers, musicians, and artists, people who have travelled, and whose affairs admit of considerable deliberation and repose. Barwood in former times had been in the habit of going there occasionally to air his amateur French, burn a spoonful of brandy in his coffee, and enjoy an economical foretaste of Paris. Returned to New York after a considerable absence, to spend his vacation at home, he was inclined to renew this with other old associations.
Megilp, sprung from a race which has supplied the world with a large share of its versatility of talent and its adventurous proclivities, was familiarly known at Gruyere's as "Mac." He was removed above want by the possession of an income sufficient, with some ingenuity of management, to provide him with the bare necessaries of life.
He found leisure to come every day to retail the gossip of the studios, and fortify himself for the desultory labors in which he was engaged. He liked the society of young men for several reasons. For one thing, they were more free with their purses than his older cronies. The association, he also thought, threw a sort of glamour of youth about his own person. Finally, they listened to the disquisitions and artistic rhapsodies in which he was fond of indulging, with an attention by no means accorded by his compeers.
Barwood was of a speculative turn of mind, and had also by nature a strong leaning towards whatever was curious and out of the common. These proclivities Megilp's conversation, pursuits, and studio full of trumpery were calculated to gratify. A moderate sort of friendship had in consequence sprung up between them.
They made mutual protestations of pleasure at this meeting. Barwood considered it an occasion worthy of a bottle of Dry Verzenay, which was not demurred to by Megilp.
The payment of specie was so entire a novelty that, when the inquiries and explanations natural after a long separation were concluded, it was among the first topics touched upon.
"Sure it's the first hard money I've seen these ten years, so it is," said Megilp.
"That is my case also," said Barwood. "I took as little interest in the matter as any boy of fourteen might be expected to; but I remember very well how rapidly specie disappeared at the beginning of the war."
"And where has it been?" said Megilp. "There's many fine points of interest about it, do you see. Consider the receptacles in which it has been hoarded--the secret places in chimneys, under floors and under ground, the vaults, old stockings, cabinets, and caskets that have teemed and glittered with it. Then there's the characters again, of all its various owners: the timid doubters about the government, the speculators, the curiosity hunters, the misers"--
"Yes," said Barwood, "the history of a single one of these pieces for the period would probably make a story full of interest." It did not detract from the value of Megilp's conversation, in Barwood's view, that the worthy artist said "foine" and "hoorded" instead of adopting the more conventional pronunciation.
"But what I'm after telling you isn't the singular part of it at all," resumed Megilp, taking some silver from his pocket and evidently settling down to the subject. "What is ten years to it? According to the mint reports a coin of the precious metals loses by wear and tear but one twenty-four hundredth of its bulk in a year. These pieces I hold in my hand, coined forty years ago, are scarcely defaced. In another forty they will be hardly more so. What, for instance, has been the career of this Mexican dollar? Perhaps it was struck from bullion fresh from a Mexican mine. In that case I have nothing to say. But just as likely it was struck from old Spanish plate or from former coin, and then it takes us back to the earliest times, and its origin is lost in obscurity. The same metal is time after time re-melted, re-cast, re-stamped, and thus maintained in perpetual youth. This gold piece upon my watch-chain was perchance coined from the sands of the Pactolus, and once bore Chaldaean characters. And to what uses has it come?
'Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away;'
and so the pieces paid for the ransom of the Inca of Peru or Richard the Lion-hearted, the material of the spurs of Agincourt, the rings of Cleopatra and Zenobia, the golden targets of Solomon, fashioned from the treasures of Ophir, may purchase soap and candles and mutton-chops for John Smith. And yet why not? We ourselves have come down to commonplace usages; why should not the works of our hands? You with your conventional hat and English walking-coat, I with my spectacles and Irish brogue, have had ancestors that wore coats of mail in the first crusade, or twanged cross-bows with Robin Hood, sailed in the ships of Tarshish, and traded to Tyre and Sidon."
"You think, then," said Barwood, "that some part of the coinage of antiquity is still in circulation."
"To be sure I do, don't I tell you? I say the precious metals are indestructible. All the coins that have figured prominently in history are in some shape or other among us still. Twenty-four hundred years of active use are needed to wear out a coin completely. How long will it last with moderate use, and with intervals of lying buried for hundreds of years, as much of the coinage of antiquity now extant in its original condition has done? We have among us the rings, bolts, chains bracelets, drinking-vessels, and vases that glitter in the narratives of all the chroniclers, and embody the pomp and luxury of all the ages.
"My silver dollar here, which I ring upon Gruyere's table, and with which, had it not been for your amiable politeness, I should have paid for my frugal lunch, has haply been moulded in Cellini's dagger-hilts or crucifixes, or formed part of a pirate's booty from a scuttled galleon on the Spanish Main. For aught I know, it was current money in Nineveh and Babylon. Perhaps it is one of the pieces paid by Abraham to the children of Heth for the double cave that looked towards Mamre."
"Or one of the pieces for which Judas betrayed the Master," suggested Barwood.
Megilp looked startled, and involuntarily pushed the money away from him. "That is a singular fancy of yours."
"It came to me quite spontaneously this moment," said Barwood. "I don't know but it is, and yet it was a very natural sequence from what preceded."
Both were abstracted for some moments, and contemplated in silence the bubbles twisting up the stems of the delicate wine-glasses.
"Do you suppose," finally said Barwood, "that those coins, if extant, carry with them an enduring curse?"
"There's no good in them, you may depend," said the other. By this time both bottle and plates were empty. The train of thought they had been pursuing seemed to have found its climax in the turn given it by Barwood. Over their coffee and dessert they discussed more cheerful topics.
"Come around to my place before you leave town," said Megilp, as they shook hands at parting. "I have a one-legged bronze Hercules from Pompeii. I think ye'll enjoy it."
As he hobbled away he muttered to himself more than once, "It's the divil's own fancy, so it is."
* * * * *
The business of the Bureau of Ethereal Claims at Washington was conducted by a moderate force of clerks, under the direction of General Bellwether. The general had been a little of everything in his time. At the outbreak of the war he abandoned an unprofitable insurance agency to raise a company. He displayed considerable courage and strategic talent in his campaigning, came out a brevet brigadier, and had been making a good thing of it ever since in the government service. The office bristled with military titles. Everybody except Barwood and Judge Montane was either colonel, major, or captain. As to the judge, a middle-aged, uncommunicative man who was known to be supporting a large family, he confessed one day over a bottle, ordered in by the bureau during the general's absence, that his title was chiefly honorary.
"What court did you used to be judge of, Montane?" inquired young Mars Brown.
"I'll tell you, boys," replied the judge, yielding to the genial influences of the occasion; "I'm just no judge at all, do you see, except may be as I'd be a good judge of whiskey or the like."
It was doubtful whether the claims of some others of the number could have been much better established.
Mars Brown, son of the senator of that name,--a man whose influence few generals or bureaus of claims could afford to disregard,--was naturally the most privileged character in the office. He chatted familiarly with the general when that irregular chief was present, absented himself for several days at a time with perfect unconcern, came late in the morning, and went early, as he explained, to make up for it. He was a handsome fellow, thoroughly confident of himself, and companionable. He displayed, among other accomplishments, an acquaintance with the manners and customs of horses and dogs, and a facility in the management of boats, guns, and fishing tackle that made him an indisputable authority on all matters of the sort. His stock of stories was immense, his wit always ready and very comical. He could convulse a dinner-party when everything else failed, by making ridiculous faces. Among ladies of all ages he was a sort of conquering hero. He was consequently in general social demand as the life of the company.
Such was Mars Brown, whom Barwood, shortly after his return to Washington, began to regard with distrust and dislike, as a possible rival in the quarter where his affections were chiefly centred.
It might have been expected, from the general's excessive preoccupation with lobbyists and politicians, that the business of the bureau should languish, and so it did. The brunt of it was borne by a few clerks--of whom Barwood was not one--whose tenure of office depended upon efficient work rather than upon influential backing. Government work must be performed by somebody, and it happens that, in spite of the great principle of rotation, the heads of men of undeniable usefulness rest firm upon their shoulders while hundreds are toppling all about them.
The bureau was not without spasmodic attempts at discipline. The general spent an occasional forenoon in lying in wait for delinquents, whose shortcomings he made the text for some very forcible remarks. The business of the office, he would state warmly, should be attended to, or he would make unpleasant theological arrangements for himself if he didn't know the reason why. With Brown he never went much further than to request, as a personal favor, that he would try to be on hand a little oftener and rather earlier, to which Brown always acceded quite cordially.
Admirable punctuality of attendance and of office hours was almost always observed for a couple of days after these formalities, and then things resumed the even tenor of their way.
Whatever might be the effect of this state of affairs upon the other employes of the office and upon the general public, it was certainly disastrous to the private interests of Henry Barwood. Naturally of an unpractical, somewhat morbid disposition, he needed the stimulus of a business life in which the necessity for action and its results when performed were constantly apparent. If engaged in his own ventures, taking risks and devising plans, he might have abandoned his speculations and fancies, and become a man of affairs. As it was, he found too much opportunity for their indulgence.
Every day from nine to three he assorted, copied, and made abstracts of applications and reports, the objects of which were remote, their expediency questionable, and their ultimate fate problematical. Without interest in the work and without any particular pressure for its performance, he dreamed over it, and often awoke from his reveries to find his figures inaccurate and his sentences meaningless.
Morbid people are probably as incomprehensible to themselves as to others. The world is viewed by each through the medium of his own ill-adjusted temperament. Objects are seen in a strangely tinted light, which is more than suspected to be delusive, yet cannot be decolorized. Barwood's vision was affected by such a distorting influence. He discovered subtle meanings in ordinary things or circumstances, in the manner of a nod from an acquaintance or the tone of a remark, and brooded over them. He continually scrutinized and questioned his own motives and those of others.
The mind of every human being is a puzzle to every other. With what is it occupied when left to its own devices? There is, in Barwood's handwriting, proof that his brain was filled with a procession of changing activities and impressions which were for the most part melancholy,--aspirations for fame, distrust in his own powers, forecasting of probabilities, repining for past sins and follies, rage and epithets for imaginary meetings with enemies. In the midst of all there were moments of perfect peace made up of reminiscences of a high-porticoed house, the grass-grown wheel-tracks and the sandy beach of the village on the Connecticut coast where his early home had been. His fancies were rich and full, but slightly chaotic. So also his will was strong and imperious at times, but vacillating.
It could not be said that he was not ambitious He would have desired success in order to secure a kindly recognition and to obviate the jars and harshness of life. But no one prevailing impulse had ever enlisted his full powers. He saved money, with a general indefinite notion of some day becoming a capitalist, and also gave much time to studies of various sorts. He learned music among the rest, after coming of age, and composed music of his own, using as an inspiration a favorite poem, picture, or character. These compositions were marked by a quaintness like that--if a comparison may be made to something tangible--, of a Chinese vase or a broken bronze figure. His family, the Barwoods, had been from the earliest times a race of shrewd and driving New England storekeepers, the very antipodes of sentiment and dilettanteism. Such incongruities are among the compensations of nature. The Holbrook farm was the one locality, and Nina Holbrook the one figure, in the generally sombre prospect which Barwood saw about him, that gleamed in sunshine. By the interposition of Mars Brown these also were presently shadowed.
[Footnote 1: From entries in a carefully kept diary.]
* * * * *
It would have been strange, with Barwood's habits of retrospection and continual casting about for the rare and curious, if the subject matter of his conversation with the old painter at Gruyere's had not taken some hold upon his imagination. But to explain the rapidity with which the notion there suggested grew, and the absorbing interest with which it finally held him, would be difficult. The influence of the mind upon the body is known. By persistent direction of thought one can both create and cure a pain in any specific spot of his organism. The mind has a similar power over itself. By intense concentration upon one subject it may suspend and finally destroy its faculty of interest in any and all others.
The idea that the price of the treason of Judas is still extant and current in these every-day, commonplace times is at first sight utterly incongruous and incredible, perhaps a little sacrilegious. Yet it is evidently plausible. "The precious metals are indeed indestructible, as Megilp has said," soliloquized Barwood. "They do not oxidize. The most violent excesses of the elements have no effect upon them. If not still extant, where then are the treasures of the ages?
"Buried under ground or in the ocean.
"What proportion of the whole has been thus disposed of?
"In the absence of statistics a definite amount cannot be stated, but from the nature of the case it cannot be large. This form of wealth has been too highly esteemed, too jealously guarded, and too rigorously sought for when lost. In the wars and convulsions of society it has changed hands but it could not be destroyed. Alexander and Tamerlane and Timour the Tartar and Mahomet might overrun the world, burning and destroying, and melting its more fragile riches like frost-work. But the money of the vanquished was useful to the victor for his own purposes. Rome took from Alexander, the barbarians from Rome, and modern civilization from the barbarians. The waves of time roll over and engulf all the monuments of men, all that gold and silver buy and sell, and, as it were, create; but these irrepressible tokens themselves float and glitter in the foam-crests upon those very billows. It cannot, then, be doubted that the instruments and accompaniments of most of the pomp and luxury, the war, treasons, and varied mercenary crimes of the world, are still acting their part in it.
"And why not with the rest the fatal money which Judas cast down before the chief priests in his remorse, going out to destroy himself?"
These were the reflections that recurred again and again to Barwood, and possessed him with a strange fascination. All coins acquired a new and intense interest. He saw in each the exponent of centuries of human passions and activities. It is true that in a country like our own a large part of the coinage is fresh from the mine. Yet his occasional encounters with foreign, especially Mexican and Canadian pieces, and a consideration of the immense sums received at the great ports of entry, were, in his regard, sufficient to leaven the whole.
Is there anywhere in literature an account of the subsequent career of the thirty pieces?
The Capitol library, one of the most complete collections in the world, offers unlimited facilities for research. There Barwood was to be found some part of every day for months.
The writer has seen a list of the works consulted by him in his singular investigation. It numbers some hundreds, and includes commentaries of all sorts upon the Gospels, lives of the apostles, collections of apocryphal Gospels and Scriptural traditions, the works of the early fathers, chronicles of the Middle Ages, treatises upon Oriental life and customs, histories of symbolism and Christian art, a great number of works upon numismatics, and, finally, accounts of great crimes and calamities. For Barwood took a new view of history: he looked to find that the great treasons, briberies, betrayals of trust, murders from mercenary motives, and perhaps financial troubles, had been set in motion by this fatal money, made the instrument of divine vengeance.
"It has mown a swath through history," he said, "like a discharge of grape."
He believed it would appear, if the truth were known, in the bank accounts of Manuel Comnenus, of Egmont, Benedict Arnold, and the Hungarian Gorgey.
His progress was by no means rapid. Much of the literature among which he delved, musty with age, written in mediaeval Latin and in obsolete characters, gave up its secrets with reluctance. Nevertheless he found definite replies to the questions which he propounded to himself. A collection of apocryphal Gospels "printed," according to the quaint title-page, "for Richard Royston at the Angle in Amen Corner, MDCLXX," relates particulars about Judas, among the rest, which do not appear in the Scriptures. He was when young, it was said, a playmate of the boy Jesus, who delivered him from a devil by which he was even then possessed. The chief value of this book to Barwood was in a reference it contained to a fuller Gospel of Judas Iscariot, not now extant with the exception of some passages quoted in the writings of Irenaeus. But these passages were upon the very subject of which he was in search. In a treatise of Irenaeus's, therefore, of about the second century, Barwood found the first definite mention of the coins.
The main part of the story is that of the authorized version, but after the account of the relinquishment of the coins by Judas, saying that he had betrayed innocent blood, and of their use in the purchase of the potter's field, occurs a passage translated by Barwood as follows:--
"Now the shekels were of the coinage of Simon, the high priest, which Antiochus authorized him to issue. They bore the pot of manna and the flowering rod of Aaron, the high priest. But he to whom they were given knew that they were the price of blood, and was afraid. And he stamped them with a mark in shape like a cross. And great tribulations came upon him, and tribulation came upon all that bought and sold with the money of Judas." Later on, Leontinus, a Byzantine writer of the sixth century, in a treatise devoted to showing the efficacy of certain forms and processes in imparting virtue to inanimate matter, instances as well known the malevolence inherent in the thirty pieces of silver of Judas, which carry ruin wherever they go. From this time the legend is traced down through successive periods. The Middle Ages, which so delighted in the romantic, the mysterious, the portentous, received it implicitly. Eginhard, abbot of Seligenstadt under Charlemagne, William of Malmesbury, the English chronicler of the twelfth century, Roger Bacon of the thirteenth, Malespini, the Italian chronicler of the same period, and many others of equal note mention as fully established that the coins of Judas were in circulation, and were inflicting serious injury upon those into whose possession they came. It was said to be impossible to amalgamate them with any other silver. They either would not melt or in melting remained distinct. This, however, was a disputed point. Some of the alchemists in their writings seem disposed to attribute the ill success of their efforts at transmutation to the presence of some taint of these pieces in the silver upon which they were experimenting.
Matthew Paris, who first popularized the legend of the Wandering Jew, as now received, strangely enough makes no mention of them.
The conclusions arrived at by Barwood were these:--
1. There was for hundreds of years a general belief in the existence and active circulation of the thirty pieces paid to Judas.
2. They were supposed to be sent as a divine judgment, and to leave ruin in their track.
3. The tradition gradually disappeared and cannot be traced in the literature of modern times.
Here was a valuable pursuit for a young American treasury clerk of the nineteenth century! It would have been interesting to have got the general's opinion upon it, if it could have been sought in some hurried interval of his confidential transactions with Richard Roe, claim agent and brother-in-law, or his attention to addition and division with Congressman Doublegame.
Barwood did not stop here. Now that his belief was put into tangible shape, he felt impelled onward to its realization. He examined minutely every coin collection in Washington. Then, as he could, he made journeys to several of the great cities. Very seldom did he find a specimen of Jewish money of any kind. Jewish coins are rare. "It is known that the Jews had no coinage of their own until the time of Maccabeus. Simon Maccabeus, by virtue of a decree of Antiochus (1 Macc. xv. 6) issued a shekel and also a half-shekel. These with the exception of some brass coins of the Herods, Archelaus, and Agrippa, and a doubtful piece attributed to Bar Cochba, the leader in the last rising against the Romans, are the only coins of Judea extant."
Barwood began to be affected by a nervous dread brought on by his too close study and constant preoccupation with this subject. As he alone had felt this interest and prosecuted this strange inquiry, might it not be that he was being drawn in some mysterious way within the influence of the fatal money? Perhaps he himself was to be involved in its relentless course. He shuddered at the thought, and yet was borne irresistibly on, as he believed, in his pursuit. He imagined at times that he felt a peculiar influence from the touch of certain pieces. This he held to be a clairvoyant sense that they had figured in crimes. Perhaps contact with a hand affected by powerful passion had imparted to them subtle properties capable of being detected by a sensitive organization.
In such study and speculation Barwood passed the spring and summer of 1870. Towards the middle of August occurred the well-remembered flurry in Wall Street consequent upon the breaking out of the French and Prussian War. Gold jumped up to one hundred and twenty-three. Money was loaned at ruinous rates. The whole financial system was disturbed. Silver, then withdrawn from circulation, has not reappeared to this day.
The effect of these events upon Barwood although not immediately apparent, was highly important. With the disappearance of specie, the daily sight and handling of which had given his conception a tangible support, its strength declined. It was not forgotten at once, nor indeed at all. But time drew it away by little and little. It threw mists of distance and hues of strangeness about it, until at length Barwood looked back upon it, far remote, as a vague object of wonderment.
[Footnote 2: Diary, June, 1870.]
* * * * *
THE HOLBROOK FARM.
The day had been sultry. Even after sunset the atmosphere was oppressive, and pavements and railings in the city were warm to the touch from the steady blaze to which they had been subjected. At the Holbrook farm, however, occasional puffs of air stirred the silver poplars skirting the road, and waved the brown timothy grass that grew knee-deep up to the veranda.
Porto Rico and Carter's boy turning somersaults in the grass--entirely without the knowledge of the discreet Carter himself, it may be assumed--suddenly relinquished this fascinating sport to rush for the privilege of holding Barwood's horse, Porto Rico's longer legs and general force of character gave him the preference. He jumped into the saddle as soon as Barwood was out of it, and trotted off to the stable with Carter's boy whooping and bobbing his woolly head in the rear.
"Never you mine," said Carter's boy, "I'll have the other gen'l'm'n."
"No other gen'l'm'n a'n't comin'," said Porto Rico. "Don't I done tole you dey don't bofe come de same day?"
The Holbrook house, three miles from the Capitol, of the dome of which it commands a pretty glimpse across an expanse of foliage, is one of the old residences remaining from the days of the slave-holders. Like many such places it has been much altered and improved. It seems to have been originally a one and-a-half-story stone dwelling, to which some later proprietor has added a high-peaked roof, dormer windows, and ample piazzas. It stands half-way up a slope, near the top of which is a grove. A brook runs down through the woods on the other side of the road, and beyond that rises a steep little bluff crowned with scrub-oaks and chestnuts.
The attraction that drew people to Holbrook farm was not the proprietor himself, nor very much his maiden sister, the housekeeper, nor yet Carter, the farmer and manager who came with them from Richmond. It was rather the engaging manners and amiable beauty of Nina Holbrook, the daughter of the house. The old gentleman was a partial paralytic, whimsical, and not especially sociable. He was known to have lived in princely style at Richmond, formerly. He was said to have met for some years past with continual reverses, in the loss of property, in sickness, and in the death of friends. The farm was bought with almost the last remnants of a great fortune.
As Barwood strode down the piazza, a young lady rose from her reading to give him her hand.
Blonde beauty is slightly indefinite. The edges are, as it were, too much softened off into the background. The figure before Barwood was fresh, distinct, clear-cut,--pre-Raphaelitish, to take a word from painting. In all the details, from the ribbon in her feathery brown hair to the pretty buttoned boot, there was the ineffable aroma of a pure, delicate taste.
To a man of Barwood's temperament falling in love was difficult. He analyzed too closely. To ask the tender passion too many questions is to repel its advances.
Nevertheless, after two years of intimate association, in which he had discovered in Nina Holbrook a frankness and loveliness of character commensurate with her personal graces, he had arrived at this condition. First, He believed that her permanent influence upon his character could cure his moodiness and his unpractical tendencies, and enable him to exert his fullest powers. Second, By making the supposition that anything should intervene to limit or break off their intercourse, he found that she had become indispensable to him.
Their acquaintance had begun in some one of the ordinary ways in which people meet. It might have been at a tea-party, or a secretary's reception, or a boat excursion up the Potomac. They discovered that they had mutual acquaintances to talk about. His evening rides began to be directed through the pretty lanes that led to Holbrook. She loaned him a book; he brought her confectionery; they played some piano duets together.
On her side the sentiment was different. She respected Barwood for fine traits and was grateful for his many kindnesses to her. But certain peculiar moods of his made her uncomfortable. His interest also was too much occupied with books, speculations about the anomalies and problems of life, and similar serious matters. She found it wearisome and often difficult to follow him. She admired such things, but had not as much head for them as he gave her credit for. Her taste was more practical, commonplace, and cheerful. She was satisfied with people and things in their ordinary aspects.
She got on much better with Mars Brown, exchanging comments with him upon the affairs of her friends and his, discussing the last party and the next wedding, or laughing at his drollery. She confessed her stupidity and frivolity with charming frankness.
Barwood was conscious that he did not always interest her, although she never showed anything but the most ladylike attention. He often went away lamenting the destiny that had fashioned his nature to run in so small and rigid a groove. His happiness, therefore, did not consist in being with her, for then he was oppressed by a consciousness of not entirely pleasing her. It was rather in retrospect, in his memory of her sweet and earnest face, the tones of her voice, the shine of her hair. He gave her such small gifts as he might within the restraints of social propriety. It would have consisted with his notion of the fitness of things to give her everything he had and leave himself a beggar.
Barwood rode to Holbrook to-day with a definite purpose. He was aware, although, as Porto Rico said, both gentlemen did not come on the same day, that Mars Brown was devoting more attention in this direction of late than the exigencies of his boat and ball clubs, his shooting and fishing, and the claims of the social world in town would seem to warrant. He did not yet really fear him as a rival. His presence was only a suggestion of possibilities. There might at some time be rivals. He had determined to forestall possibilities, and tell her of his affection at once.
Mars Brown was, however, a dangerous rival, although himself perhaps as little aware of it as Barwood. He also had met Nina and been impressed by her animated beauty. Accustomed to success, he had ridden out to Holbrook to add one more to his list of flirtations and conquests. The results had by no means answered his expectations. When he approached sentiment Nina laughed at him. By degrees he had been piqued into earnestness, and had for the first time in his life approximated to a serious esteem and attachment.
Although Nina laughed at first, later on she sometimes blushed at his voice or his step, or when she put her hand into his. If his customary shrewd vision had not been disturbed by some unusual influences at work within himself, he would have seen it.
He had the audacity that charms women, and with it a frank, open face, a hearty laugh, an entirely healthy, cheerful disposition, and an air of strength under all his frivolity.
It has been said that Barwood had come to the farm to-day with a definite purpose. He drew up one of the comfortable chairs at hand, and sat down near to Nina. They talked at first of ordinary things, the unusual heat, the news of the day, and what each had been doing since their last meeting.
The secluded prospect before them was very peaceful. Barwood felt its soothing influence acting upon the perturbation of his spirit.
"I am improving my mind, you see," said Nina, holding up to him one of Motley's histories, which she had apparently been reading. "I do not believe even you can find fault with this."
"Am I in the habit of finding fault with anybody, Miss Nina?"
"Oh no, I don't mean that exactly, but you know so much, you know, that you frighten one."
"Thank you," said Barwood with a grave smile, "you flatter me."
"Why were you not at the Hoyts' last Tuesday?" said she.
"I was not invited, and, strange to state, I am a little diffident about going under such circumstances."
"Ah, you are! how singular! But I wish you had been there, if it was only to see Betty Goodwin. You used to know her. It is such a short time ago that she was a little girl. Now she is out of school and as important as anybody. You should have seen the attention she had, and her perfect self-possession. It makes me feel extremely antiquated. Am I very much wrinkled?"
Barwood gazed with admiration at her animated face. She was to him the personification of youth and beauty. The notion of age and wrinkles in her regard was inconceivable.
"Why, of course," said he; "Methuselah wasn't a circumstance."
She dismissed the subject with a little pout.
"I am so glad you have come early," she resumed. "I wish the others would imitate your example."
"The others? What others?"
"Mr. Hyson, the Hoyt boys, Mr. Brown, Fanny Davis, and the rest. You did not suppose you were to do them alone, I hope."
"Do what alone? I don't understand."
"Why, the tableaux--Evangeline. Did you not get my message yesterday?"
"I got no message. Am I to be implicated in tableaux?"
"Why, certainly. You are to be Evangeline's father. They are for the benefit of the French wounded. I sent Carter to tell you yesterday. We are to arrange the preliminaries this evening."
Barwood saw that if he would not postpone his purpose no time was to be lost. The visitors might arrive at any moment.
Literature is full of the embarrassments of the marriage proposal. To all who are not borne along by an impetuous impulse it is a trying ordeal. Barwood was too self-conscious ever to be transported out of himself.
"I have something to say to you, Miss Nina," he began, "which I have come from town expressly to say. It is of the greatest moment to me."
She continued to look straight before her at the glowing evening sky, and so did he. The crickets and katydids had commenced their chorus and the tree-toads their long rhythm. Fire-flies flitted in the uncertain light. There came from the woods the call of the owl and the whippoorwill.
"We have sometimes laughed together at sentiment," he continued, "and voted it an invention of the story-books; but there are times--there is a sentiment--which--in short, dear Nina, I have come to ask you to be my little wife. I have loved you almost since our first meeting."
"Oh, Mr. Barwood," said she, looking hastily towards him, with heightened color and a tone of regret, "you must not say so. I cannot let you go on."
"I must go on," said he. "I have never felt so strongly upon any subject as this. I know I am not worthy of such happiness, yet I cannot bear the thought of losing it. Consider our long friendship. You will be mine? Oh, say so, Nina!" In the terrible dread that his petition was already refused, he became a little incoherent.
Nina, a tender-hearted young lady, was by this time in tears. His evident distress, and her recognition of the great compliment he had paid her, would have commanded almost any return save the one he asked. But the sacrifice was too great. She had not thought it would ever be necessary to change their relation of friendship.
"I am very sorry to have to say what is painful to you," said she, with a sob only half repressed. "I want you to be always my friend. I shall be very unhappy if our friendship is to be broken, but I cannot--you will find some other"--
"Do not speak further," he interrupted, impetuously. "You have not yet said no. Reserve your answer; take time to consider. Let me still hope."
"No," she began, "I ought"--but wheels and merry voices were heard at the gate. "Oh! I cannot let them see me now," she said, and hurried away. In a moment more the Robinsons' carriage was at the steps. When Nina came down with a sweet, subdued manner, there was a jolly party of ten or twelve in the drawing-room. Mars Brown was already amusing everybody with his absurd posturing.
"I want to be Evangeline," said he, wrapping a lady's shawl about him and sitting on the arm of a chair in a collapsed attitude. "No, on second thought, I want to be Basil the blacksmith." He made imitations of tremendous muscular power with a tack-hammer that happened in his way for a sledge. Everybody on such occasions has his own notions of the picturesque. A deal of talking was required in arranging the various scenes. Evangeline must manifest a "celestial brightness," according to the lines. "I don't think you do it quite right," said Julia Robinson. "You should smile a little."
"Oh no, not at all; she should have an earnest, far off look," said another critic.
"Of course she should," said Mars Brown, rumpling his hair and contorting his features into an expression of idiotic vacancy; "something this way."
"We ought to have a real artist to arrange them," said Nina; "what would I give if old Mr. Megilp were here."
"Did you know Megilp?" exclaimed Barwood.
"Why, of course I did. He was my drawing teacher at Richmond for years."
"What a small world it is, to be sure," said Barwood, giving vent to a favorite reflection. The mention of Megilp brought back for a moment a remembrance of their last meeting and conversation, and the strange pursuit into which it had led him.
The signing of the marriage contract was selected by the amateurs as an appropriate subject for illustration.
"We must have a table," said Miss Travers. "At one side sits the notary, lifting his pen from the document which he has just signed, and at the other her father, pushing toward the notary a roll of money in payment."
"Here you are," said George Wigwag, taking his place and assuming the appropriate gesture; "here's your notary; bring on your old gentleman and his money."
"A roll of old copper cents would be just the thing," said Miss Travers. "They look antique enough."
"Will some gentleman deposit with the treasurer a roll of antique copper cents?" said Brown, passing a hat. "No gentleman deposits a roll of copper cents. Very well, then the wedding can't go on."
"Do you think I'll sign marriage contracts for copper?" said Wigwag. "No indeed; I'm not that kind of a notary."
"I will bring down some of papa's curiosity coins from his cabinet," said Nina. "I don't believe he will scold me, just for once."
She returned in a moment with a dozen or more silver pieces, and placed them on the table by Barwood. He began to examine them carelessly.
"I did not know your father was a numismatist," said he.
"Oh yes," said Nina, "he always had a great taste in that way. His collection now is nothing. When we broke up in Richmond most of it was sold off. He retained only a few of the most valuable pieces, which he keeps in a case in his room. I don't know much about such things, for my part. Here is one that is considered curious. It was taken out of a wreck on the California coast, I believe, and was the last papa bought before his failure. I think it is Russian, perhaps, or Arabic--no, let me see"--
Barwood, with an abstracted air, took it to examine. Suddenly he uttered a strange exclamation and fell back in his chair, pale, trembling, almost fainting.
The coin was a Jewish shekel, with a cross cut through at one side.
He pleaded sudden illness, and rode hastily homeward in a state of indescribable agitation.
* * * * *
Barwood's strange and almost forgotten conception was thus at length realized, and the interest with which it had inspired him intensely revived. One of the fatal pieces was found. He would now fain have overthrown the structure of probabilities which he had labored so painfully to elaborate. He reviewed step by step all the details of his former study; but no argument availed in the face of the extraordinary corroboration now offered. The piece was "stamped with a mark in shape like a cross," and the account of Irenaeus was verified.
That this fatal piece should appear in the hands of the people whom of all others he most esteemed and with whom his own fortunes were most intimately bound up, was a terrible shock. This, then, was the clew to the catalogue of Holbrook's misfortunes. What surpassing crime could the old man have committed to be so signally marked out for vengeance? But the question of most vital interest was what could be done to save the family so dear to him from their impending fate.
With the recovery of some calmness, he felt that his first duty was to remove the coin from their possession. But how was it to be done? He could not disclose his knowledge of its baleful properties. It would be set down as the vagary of a disordered brain; nobody would entertain it for an instant. His object must be accomplished, if at all, by artifice.
When he next rode to the farm, nearly a week had elapsed since the evening into which so many distracting emotions had been crowded. He exerted himself to display unusual cheerfulness, with the double object of removing any disagreeable impression which might have been the result of his sudden departure on that occasion, and also of finding means to forward his purpose. The subject uppermost in the thoughts of both was at first carefully avoided, and they talked much in their usual fashion.
"Those coins, Miss Nina, which were used the other evening in the tableau," said he, with a careless air, "can I see them again? I found them interesting, but owing to my sudden illness, as you know, had scarcely time to examine them."
"My father was displeased at me for taking them," said she, "and has forbidden me to do so again. I think he would show them to you himself with pleasure, if he were here, but he went North yesterday on business which will detain him a week. He took the key of his cabinet with him."
Disappointed in this, there seemed to be for the present no resource. He recurred again to his love. If she would consent to be his, he thought, he might disclose the danger, and they could plan together to avert it. He told her with what anxiety he had been awaiting her decision, and then once more made his appeal with all the ardor at his command. As he finished, standing close beside her, he took her hand.
She did not withdraw it, but still went on to tell him with great calmness and dignity that what he desired could never be. She hoped their friendship might always continue, but as for a closer relation, it would be unjust to him as well as herself to enter into it without the affection which she could not give.
He went away apparently very much broken down, saying that his life was a burden to him, and that he had no use for it. The next day he came again and acted so strangely, mingling appeals to her with talk about her father's coins, that she was a little frightened.
The few days that succeeded made a striking change in the appearance of Barwood. He became pale and haggard, and seemed to have lost his capacity for business and fixed attention. He sat staring helplessly at his papers for an hour at a time. The general, who with all his iniquities was a good-hearted chief, thought he was sick, and told him to stay at home and take care of himself. His reflections at this time were tormenting. He saw that he had indeed been drawn within the influence of the fatal coin. It was at him that its malignity was directed, and he believed that his doom was approaching, as indeed it was. Sometimes he gazed at his altered face in the glass, while tears streamed down his cheeks. He said aloud, in a piteous tone, "Poor Henry Barwood."
The sympathy of the world is generally upon the side of the unsuccessful lover. He is considered to have been defrauded of happiness which should by right have been his. But is it fair? Because her face is sweet, her manners are amiable, her form is slender and graceful, and her hair has a golden shine, and Barwood or Brown or Travers, as the case may be, in common with all the world, recognizes it, does that establish a claim upon her? Just as likely as not he has a snub nose and only fifteen hundred a year, and cannot dance the Boston. No! sympathy is well enough, but let not the blame be cast upon Chloe every time that Daphnis goes off in despair to the Sandwich Islands, or the war in Cuba, or turns out a good-for-nothing sot. Let it rather be set down as one of the ill-adjustments of which there are so many in life, and the endurance of which is no doubt of service in some direction not yet fully understood.
In about a week there came from Holbrook Farm a message which was not needed to complete the measure of Barwood's unhappiness.
"My father," wrote Nina, "has just returned. He has decided that we are to remove permanently to Connecticut, where my aunt has fallen heir to the Holbrook homestead. We shall leave next Monday. Will you let us see you before we go?"
He mounted his horse and started at once. He did not know exactly what he should do or say. His ideas were in a state of confusion, and there was a numbness over all his sensations. He gave himself up blindly to his destiny.
He saw Nina sitting in the shade of an apple-tree, half-way down the lawn, near a little plateau which served for a croquet ground. He tied his horse to the fence outside, much to the disappointment of the rollicking negro boys, and walked up. Nina held in her lap a tray of coins which she was engaged in brightening. She assumed a sprightliness not quite natural, and evidently designed to obviate the awkwardness of their peculiar relation.
"We have had an accident," said she. "One of our chimneys fell through the roof during the storm last night. It shook down the plaster upon papa's cabinet. The glass was broken and the rain came in so that this morning it was in a sorry condition. I am repairing damages, you see. If I were superstitious," she continued, "I should fear that something was going to happen. I meet with so many omens lately. I spill salt, cross funerals, and make one of thirteen at dinner parties."
Barwood replied as best he could; he did not know exactly what. He was in no mood for flippancy. He assumed a dozen different positions in a short space: first sitting on a camp-chair beside her, then hurried walking up and down, then careless prostration upon the grass. The old, useless argument was gone through with again. She told him at last that it annoyed her, that he was very inconsiderate. Then again he paced up and down the little croquet ground. She saw him twisting and clutching his hands together behind him. At the fifth or sixth turn as he came by she had the marked shekel in her hand. He took it from her and looked at it curiously.
"Yes, it is indeed," said he in an unnatural voice, "fatal money, and I am its latest victim!"
He threw it towards the woods with great force.
It rose high in the air, skimmed the trees, and they saw it twinkle into the brook.
It was a very little incident. No magic hand arose from the water. The beauty of the August day was not marred. The rain of the past night had swollen the brook, which ran hurriedly on to the Potomac, making little of this trivial addition to its burdens.
Nina did not reproach him. She felt that her father would consider the loss irreparable, yet she had no words for this extraordinary rudeness. After two or three turns more in his walk he stopped close beside her.
"For the last time," said he, "have I urged everything, and is it of no use?"
She made no answer.
"You have said so?" he persisted.
"Yes, I have said so," she replied, with a touch of impatience, and without raising her eyes. "I am engaged to Mars Brown."
He went forward several steps and stood still. Glancing up she saw him hold a little revolver to his temple. It was one she had known him to carry for protection when riding late in the evening. He seemed to deliberate one terrible moment while she sat spell-bound as if by nightmare, and then he fired and fell.
She tried to reach his body, but fainted on the way. Mars Brown, riding to Holbrook for a half-holiday, was almost within sight.
Upon the closing scene of Hamlet, where the characters, after a period of stormy conflict and exquisite anguish, lie strewn by violent death, arrives young Fortinbras at the head of his marching army. Tall, sturdy, elastic, dressed in chain-mail, victorious, careless, the impersonation of ruddy life, the young Norway conqueror leans upon his sword above the pitiable sight.
So this brilliant young man, elegant in figure, well dressed, joyous, cynical, came whistling up the path. He cut off the clover tops with his walking-stick. The butterflies, the pleasant aromas, and all the manifestations of rural beauty pleased him.
"Egad," said he, "this isn't so bad, you know."
In a moment he stood by the apple-tree, and the whole sad spectacle was before him.
* * * * *
The telegraphic column of a New York newspaper gave the story next morning, in the conventional manner, as follows: