Chapter II.
 

Evening, with its passionless influences, was stealing softly down, and leaving on all things its hues of quiet and repose. The heart of nature was beating with calm and even pulses. Not so the heart of Edwin Florence. It had a wilder throb; and the face of nature was not reflected in the mirror of his feelings, He was alone in his room, where he had been during the few hours that had elapsed since his interview with Miss Linmore. In those few hours, Memory had turned over many leaves of the Book of his Life. He would fain have averted his eyes from the pages, but he could not. The record was before him, and he had read it. And, as he read, the eyes of Edith looked into his own; at first they were loving and tender, as of old; and then. they were full of tears. Her hand lay, now, confidingly in his; and now it was slowly withdrawn. She sat by his side, and leaned upon him--his lips were upon her lips; his cheek touching her cheek; their breaths were mingling. Another moment and he had turned from her coldly, and she was drooping towards the earth like a tender vine bereft of the support to which it had held by its clinging tendrils. Ah! If he could only have shut out these images! If he could have erased the record so that Memory could not read it! How eagerly would he have drunk of Lethe's waters, could he have found the fabled stream!

More than all this. The rebuke of Miss Linmore almost maddened him. In turning from Edith, he had let his heart go out towards the other with a passionate devotion. Pride in her beauty and brilliant accomplishments had filled his regard with a selfishness that could ill bear the shock of a sudden repulse. Sleepless was the night that followed; and when the morning, long looked for, broke at last, it brought no light for his darkened spirit. Yet he had grown calmer, and a gentle feeling pervaded his bosom. Thrown off by Miss Linmore, his thoughts now turned by a natural impulse, as the needle, long held by opposing attraction, turns to its polar point, again towards Edith Walter. As he thought of her longer and longer, tenderer emotions began to tremble in his heart. The beauty of her character was again seen; and his better nature bowed before it once more in a genuine worship.

"How have I been infatuated! What syren spell has been on me!" Such were the words that fell from his lips, marking the change in his feelings.

Days went by, and still the change went on, until the old affection had come back; the old tender, true affection. But, he had turned from its object--basely turned away. A more glaring light had dazzled his eyes so that he could see, for a time, no beauty, no attraction, in his first love. Could he turn to her again? Would she receive him? Would she let him dip healing leaves in the waters he had dashed with bitterness? His heart trembled as he asked these questions, for there was no confident answer.

At last Edwin Florence resolved that he would see Edith once more, and seek to repair the wrong done both to her and to himself. It was three months after his rejection by Miss Linmore when he came to this resolution. And then, some weeks elapsed before he could force himself to act upon it. In all that time he had not met the young girl, nor had he once heard of her. To the house of her aunt, where she resided, Florence took his way one evening in early autumn, his heart disturbed by many conflicting emotions. His love for Edith had come back in full force; and his spirit was longing for the old communion.

"Can I see Miss Walter!" he asked, on arriving at her place of residence.

"Walk in," returned the servant who had answered his summons.

Florence entered the little parlor where he had spent so many never-to-be-forgotten hours with Edith--hours unspeakably happy in passing, but, in remembrance, burdened with pain--and looking around on each familiar object with strange emotions. Soon a light step was heard descending the stairs, and moving along the passage. The door opened, and Edith--no, her aunt--entered. The young man had risen in the breathlessness of expectation.

"Mr. Florence," said the aunt, coldly. He extended his hand; but she did not take it.

"How is Edith?" was half stammered.

"She is sinking rapidly," replied the aunt.

Edwin staggered back into a chair.

"Is she ill?" he inquired, with a quivering lip.

"Ill! She is dying!" There was something of indignation in the way this was said.

"Dying!" The young man clasped his hands together with a gesture of despair.

"How long has she been sick?" he next ventured to ask.

"For months she has been dying daily," said the aunt. There was a meaning in her tones that the young man fully comprehended. He had not dreamed of this.

"Can I see her?"

The aunt shook her head, as she answered,

"Let her spirit depart in peace."

"I will not disturb, but calm her spirit," said the young man, earnestly. "Oh, let me see her, that I may call her back to life!"

"It is too late," replied the aunt. "The oil is exhausted, and light is just departing."

Edwin started to his feet, exclaiming passionately--"Let me see her! Let me see her!"

"To see her thus, would be to blow the breath that would extinguish the flickering light," said the aunt. "Go home, young man! It is too late! Do not seek to agitate the waters long troubled by your hand, but now subsiding into calmness. Let her spirit depart in peace."

Florence sunk again into his chair, and, hiding his face with his hands, sat for some moments in a state of a mental paralysis.

In the chamber above lay the pale, almost pulseless form of Edith. A young girl, who had been as her sister for many years, sat holding her thin white hand. The face of the invalid was turned to the wall. Her eyes were closed; and she breathed so quietly that the motions of respiration could hardly be seen. Nearly ten minutes had elapsed from the time a servant whispered to the aunt that there was some one in the parlor, when Edith turned, and said to her companion, in a low, calm voice--

"Mr. Florence has come."

The girl started, and a flush of surprise went over her face.

"He is in the parlor now. Won't you ask him to come up?" added the dying maiden, still speaking with the utmost composure.

Her friend stood surprised and hesitating for some moments, and then turning away, glided from the chamber. She found the aunt and Mr. Florence in the passage below, the latter pleading with the former for the privilege of seeing Edith, which was resolutely denied.

"Edith wants to see Mr. Florence," said the girl, as she joined them.

"Who told her that he was here?" quickly asked the aunt.

"No one. I did not know it myself."

"Her heart told her that I was here," exclaimed Mr. Florence--and, as he spoke, he glided past the aunt, and, with hurried steps, ascended to the chamber where the dying one lay. The eyes of Edith were turned towards the door as he entered; but no sign of emotion passed over her countenance. Overcome by his feelings, at the sight of the shadowy remnant of one so loved and so wronged, the young man sunk into a chair by her side, as nerveless as a child; and, as his lips were pressed upon her lips and cheeks, her face was wet with his tears.

Coming in quickly after, the aunt took firmly hold of his arm and sought to draw him away, but, in a steady voice, the invalid said--

"No--no. I was waiting for him. I have expected him for days. I knew he would come; and he is here now."

All was silence for many minutes; and during this time Edwin Florence sat with his face covered, struggling to command his feelings. At a motion from the dying girl, the aunt and friend retired, and she was alone with the lover who had been false to his vows. As the door closed behind them, Edwin looked up. He had grown calm. With a voice of inexpressible tenderness, he said--

"Live for me, Edith."

"Not here," was answered. "The silver chord will soon be loosened and the golden bowl broken."

"Oh, say not that! Let me call you back to life. Turn to me again as I have turned to you with my whole heart. The world is still beautiful; and in it we will be happy together."

"No, Edwin," replied the dying maiden. "The history of my days here is written, and the angel is about sealing the record. I am going where the heart will never feel the touch of sorrow. I wished to see you once more before I died; and you are here. I have, once more, felt your breath upon my cheek; once more held your hand in mine. For this my heart is grateful. You had become the sun of my life, and when your face was turned away, the flower that spread itself joyfully in the light, drooped and faded. And now, the light has come back again; but it cannot warm into freshness and beauty the withered blossom."

"Oh, my Edith! Say not so! Live for me! I have no thoughts, no affection that is not for you. The drooping flower will lift itself again in the sunshine when the clouds have passed away."

As the young man said this, Edith raised herself up suddenly, and, with a fond gesture, flung herself forward upon his bosom. For a few moments her form quivered in his arms. Then all became still, and he felt her lying heavier and heavier against him. In a little while he was conscious that he clasped to his heart only the earthly semblance of one who had passed away forever.

Replacing the light and faded form of her who, a little while before, had been in the vigor of health, upon the bed, Edwin gazed upon the sunken features for a few moments, and then, leaving a last kiss upon her cold lips, hurried aware.

Another page in his Book of Life was written, There was another record there from which memory, in after life, could read. And such a record! What would he not have given to erase that page!

When the body of Edith Walter was borne to its last resting-place, Florence was among the mourners. After looking his last look upon the coffin that contained the body, he went away, sadder in heart than he had ever been in his life. He was not only a prey to sadness, but to painful self-accusation. In his perfidy lay the cause of her death. He had broken the heart that confided in him, and only repented of his error when it was too late to repair the ruin.

As to what was thought or said of him by others, Edwin Florence cared but little. There was enough of pain in his own self-consciousness. He withdrew himself from the social circle, and, for several years, lived a kind of hermit-life in the midst of society. But, he was far from being happy in his solitude; for Memory was with him, and almost daily, from the Book of his Life, read to him some darkly written page.

One day, it was three years from the time he parted with Edith in the chamber of death, and when he was beginning to rise in a measure above the depressing influences attendant upon that event,--he received an invitation to make one of a social party on the next evening. The desire to go back again in society had been gaining strength with him for some time; and, as it had gained strength, reason had pointed out the error of his voluntary seclusion as unavailing to alter the past.

"The past is past," he said to himself, as he mused with the invitation in his hand. "I cannot recall it--I cannot change it. If repentance can in any way atone for error, surely I have made atonement; for my repentance has been long and sincere. If Edith can see my heart, her spirit must be satisfied. Even she could not wish for this living burial. It is better for me to mingle in society as of old."

Acting on this view, Florence made one on the next evening, in a social party. He felt strangely, for his mind was invaded by old influences, and touched by old impressions. He saw, in many a light and airy form, as it glanced before him, the image of one long since passed away; and heard, in the voices that filled the rooms, many a tone that it seemed must have come from the lips of Edith. How busy was Memory again with the past. In vain he sought to shut out the images that arose in his mind. The page was open before him, and what was impressed thereon he could not but see and read.

This passed, in some degree, away as the evening progressed, and he came nearer, so to speak, to some of those who made up the happy company. Among those present was a young lady from a neighboring city, who attracted much attention both from her manners and person. She fixed the eyes of Mr. Florence soon after he entered the room, and, half unconsciously to himself, his observation was frequently directed towards her.

"Who is that lady?" he asked of a friend, an hour after his arrival.

"Her name is Miss Welden. She is from Albany."

"She has a very interesting face," said Florence.

"And quite as interesting a mind. Miss Weldon is a charming girl."

Not long after, the two were thrown near together, when an introduction took place. The conversation of the young lady interested Florence, and in her society he passed half an hour most pleasantly. While talking with more than usual animation, in lifting his eyes he saw that some one on, the opposite side of the room was observing him attentively. For the moment this did not produce any effect. But, in looking up again, he saw the same eyes upon him, and felt their expression as unpleasant. He now, for the first time, became aware that the aunt of Edith Walter was present. She it was who had been regarding him so attentively. From that instant his heart sunk in his bosom. Memory's magic mirror was before him, and in it he saw pictured the whole scene of that last meeting with Edith.

A little while afterward, and Edwin Florence was missed from the pleasant company. Where was he? Alone in the solitude of his own chamber, with his thoughts upon the past. Again he had been reading over those pages of his Book of Life in which was written the history of his intimacy with and desertion of Edith; and the record seemed as fresh as if made but the day before. It was in vain that he sought to close or avert his eyes. There seemed a spell upon him; and he could only look and read.

"Fatal error!" he murmured to himself, as he struggled to free himself from his thraldom to the past. "Fatal error! How a single act will curse a man through life. Oh! if I could but extinguish the whole of this memory! If I could wipe out the hand-writing. Sorrow, repentance, is of no avail. The past is gone for ever. Why then should I thus continue to be unhappy over what I cannot alter? It avails nothing to Edith. She is happy--far happier than if she had remained on this troublesome earth."

But, even while he uttered these words, there came into his mind such a realizing sense of what the poor girl must have suffered, when she found her love thrown back upon her, crushing her heart by its weight, that he bowed his head upon his bosom and in bitter self-upbraidings passed the hours until midnight, when sleep locked up his senses, and calmed the turbulence of his feelings.