Chapter IV.
 

In a few days Clara was well enough to leave her room, and was soon entirely recovered from her sudden illness. That little matter of the heart had been settled within three minutes of their meeting, and they were now as happy as lovers usually are under such favorable circumstances.

When Edwin Florence went back to New York, it was with a sense of interior pleasure more perfect than he had experienced for years; and this would have remained, could he have shut out the past; or, so much of it as came like an unwelcome intruder. But, alas! this was not to be. Even while he was bending, in spirit, over the beautiful image of his last beloved, there would come between his eyes and that image a pale sad face, in which reproof was stronger than affection, It was all in vain that he sought to turn from that face. For a time it would remain present, and then fade slowly away, leaving his heart oppressed.

"Is it to be ever thus!" he would exclaim, in these seasons of darkness. "Will nothing satisfy this accusing spirit? Edith! Dear Edith! Art thou not among the blessed ones? Is not thy heart happy beyond mortal conception? Then why come to me thus with those tearful eyes, that shadowy face, those looks of reproof? Have I not suffered enough for purification! Am I never to be forgiven?"

And then, with an effort, he would turn his eyes from the page laid open by Memory, and seek to forget what was written there. But it seemed as if every thing conspired to freshen his remembrance of the past, the nearer the time approached, when by a marriage union with one truly beloved, he was to weaken the bonds it had thrown around him. The marriage of Miss Linmore took place a few weeks after his engagement with Clara, and as an intimate friend led her to the altar, he could not decline making one of the number that graced the nuptial festivities. In meeting the young bride, he endeavored to push from his mind all thoughts of their former relations. But she had not done this, and her thought determined his. Her mind recurred to the former time, the moment he came into her presence, and, of necessity his went back also. They met, therefore, with a certain reserve, that was to him most unpleasant, particularly as it stirred a hundred sleeping memories.

By a strong effort, Florence was able to conceal from other eyes much of what he felt. In doing this, a certain over action was the consequence; and he was gayer than usual. Several times he endeavored to be lightly familiar with the bride; but, in every instance that he approached her, he perceived a kind of instinctive shrinking; and, if she was in a laughing mood, when he drew near she became serious and reserved. All this was too plain to be mistaken; and like the repeated strokes of a hammer upon glowing iron, gradually bent his feelings from the buoyant form they had been endeavoring to assume. The effect was not wholly to be resisted. More than an hour before the happy assemblage broke up, Florence was not to be found in the brilliantly lighted rooms. Unable longer to conceal what he felt, he had retired.

For many days after this, the young man felt sober. "Why haven't you called to see me?" asked the friend who had married Miss Linmore, a week or two after the celebration of the nuptials.

Florence excused himself as best he could, and promised to call in a few days. Two weeks went by without the fulfillment of his promise.

"No doubt, we shall see you next week," said the friend, meeting him one day about this time; "though I am not so sure we will receive your visits then."

"Why not?"

"A certain young lady with whom, I believe, you have some acquaintance, is to spend a short time with us."

"Who?" asked Florence, quickly.

"A young lady from Albany."

"Miss Weldon?"

"The same."

"I was not aware that she was on terms of intimacy with your wife."

"She's an old friend of mine; and, in that sense a friend of Kate's."

"Then they have not met."

"Oh, yes; frequently. And are warmly attached. We look for a pleasant visit. But, of course, we shall not expect to see you. That is understood."

"I rather think you will; that is, if your wife will admit me on friendly terms."

"Why do you say that?" inquired the friend, appearing a little surprised.

"I thought, on the night of your wedding, that she felt my presence as unwelcome to her."

"And is this the reason why you have not called to see us."

"I frankly own that it is."

"Edwin! I am surprised at you. It is all a piece of imagination. What could have put such a thing into your head?"

"It may have been all imagination. But I couldn't help feelings as I did. However, you may expect to see me, and that, too, before Miss Weldon's arrival."

"If you don't present yourself before, I am not so sure that we will let you come afterwards," said the friend, smiling.

On the next evening the young man called. Mrs. Hartley, the bride of his friend, endeavored to forget the past, and to receive him with all the external signs of forgetfulness. But, in this she did not fully succeed, and, of course, the visit of Florence was painfully embarrassing, at least, to himself. From that time until the arrival of Miss Weldon, he felt concerned and unhappy. That Mrs. Hartley would fully communicate or covertly hint to Clara certain events of his former life, he had too much reason to fear; and, were this done, he felt that all his fond hopes would be scattered to the winds. In due time, Miss Weldon arrived. In meeting her, Florence was conscious of a feeling of embarrassment, never before experienced in her presence. He understood clearly why this was so. At each successive visit his embarrassment increased; and, the more so, from the fact that he perceived a change in Clara ere she had been in the city a week. As to the cause of this change, he had no doubts. It was evident that Mrs. Hartley had communicated certain matters touching his previous history.

Thus it went on day after day, for two or three weeks, by which time the lovers met under the influence of a most chilling constraint. Both were exceedingly unhappy.

One day, in calling as usual, Mr. Florence was surprised to learn that Clara had gone back to Albany.

"She said, nothing of this last night," remarked the young man to Mrs. Hartley.

"Her resolution was taken after you went away," was replied.

"And you, no doubt, advised the step," said Mr. Florence, with ill-concealed bitterness.

"Why do you say that?" was quickly asked.

"How can I draw any other inference?" said the young man, looking at her with knit brows.

"Explain yourself, Mr. Florence!"

"Do my words need explanation?"

"Undoubtedly! For, I cannot understand them."

"There are events in my past life--I will not say how bitterly repented--of which only you could have informed her."

"What events?" calmly asked the lady.

"Why lacerate my feelings by such a question?" said Florence, while a shadow of pain flitted over his face, as Memory presented a record of the past.

"I ask it with no such intention. I only wish to understand you," replied Mrs. Hartley. "You have brought against me a vague accusation. I wish it distinct, that I may affirm or deny it."

"Edith Walter," said Edwin Florence, in a low, unsteady voice, after he had been silent for nearly a minute.

Mrs. Hartley looked earnestly into his face. Every muscle was quivering.

"What of her?" she inquired, in tones quite as low as those in which the young man had spoken.

"You know the history."

"Well?"

"And, regardless of my suffering and repentance, made known to Clara the blasting secret."

"No! By my hopes of heaven, no!" quickly exclaimed Mrs. Hartley.

"No?" A quiver ran through the young man's frame.

"No, Mr. Florence! That rested as silently in my own bosom as in yours."

"Who, then, informed her?"

"No one."

"Has she not heard of it?"

"No."

"Why, then, did she change towards me?"

"You changed, first, towards her."

"Me!"

"Yes. From the day of her arrival in New York, she perceived in you a certain coldness and reserve, that increased with each repeated interview."

"Oh, no!"

"It is true. I saw it myself."

Florence clasped his hands together, and bent his eyes in doubt and wonder upon the floor.

"Did she complain of coldness and change in me?" he inquired.

"Yes, often. And returned, last night, to leave you free, doubting not that you had ceased to love her."

"Ceased to love her! While this sad work has been going on, I have loved her with the agony of one who is about losing earth's most precious thing. Oh! write to her for me, and explain all. How strange has been my infatuation. Will you write for me?"

"Yes."

"Say that my heart has not turned from her an instant. That her imagined coldness has made me of all men most wretched."

"I will do so. But why not write yourself?"

"It will be better to come from you. Ask her to return. I would rather meet her here than in her uncle's house. Urge her to come back."

Mrs. Hartley promised to do so, according to the wish of Mr. Florence. Two days passed, and there was no answer. On the morning of the third day, the young man, in a state of agitation from suspense called at the house of his friend. After sending up his name, he sat anxiously awaiting the appearance of Mrs. Hartley. The door at length opened, and, to his surprise and joy, Clara entered. She came forward with a smile upon her face, extending her hand as she did so. Edwin sprang to meet her, and catching her hand, pressed it eagerly to his lips.

"Strange that we should have so erred in regard to each other," said Clara, as they sat communing tenderly. "I trust no such error will come in the future to which I look forward with so many pleasing hopes."

"Heaven forbid!" replied the young man, seriously.

"But we are in a world of error. Ah! if we could only pass through life without a mistake. If the heavy weight of repentance did not lie so often and so long upon our hearts--this would be a far pleasanter world than it is."

"Do not look so serious," remarked Clara, as she bent forward and gazed affectionately into the young man's face. "To err is human. No one here is perfect. How often, for hours, have I mourned over errors; yet grief was of no avail, except to make my future more guarded."

"And that was much gained," said Florence, breathing deeply with a sense of relief. "If we cannot recall and correct the past, we can at least be more guarded in the future. This is the effect of my own experience. Ah! if we properly considered the action of our present upon the future, how guarded would we be. All actions are in the present, and the moment they are done the present becomes the past, over which Memory presides. What is past is fixed. Nothing can change it. The record is in marble, to be seen in all future time."

The serious character of the interview soon changed, and the young lovers forgot every thing in the joy of their reconciliation. Nothing arose to mar their intercourse until the appointed time for the nuptial ceremonies arrived, when they were united in holy wedlock. But, Edwin Florence did not pass on to this time without another visit from the rebuking Angel of the past. He was not permitted to take the hand of Clara in his, and utter the words that bound him to her forever, without a visit from the one whose heart he had broken years before. She came to him in the dark and silent midnight, as he tossed sleeplessly upon his bed, and stood and looked at him with her pale face and despairing eyes, until he was driven almost to madness. She was with him when the light of morning dawned; she moved by his side as he went forth to meet and claim his betrothed; and was near him, invisible to all eyes but his own, when he stood at the altar ready to give utterance to the solemn words that bound him to his bride. And not until these words were said, did the vision fade away.

No wonder the face of the bridegroom wore a solemn aspect as he presented himself to the minister, and breathed the vows of eternal fidelity to the living, while before him, as distinct as if in bodily form, was the presence of one long since sleeping ill her grave, who had gone down to her shadowy resting place through his infidelity.

From this time there was a thicker veil drawn over the past. The memory of that one event grew less and less distinct; though it was not obliterated, for nothing that is written in the Book of Life is ever blotted out. There were reasons, even in long years after his marriage, when the record stood suddenly before him, as if written in words of light; and he would turn from it with a feeling of pain.

Thus it is that our present blesses or curses our future. Every act of our lives affects the coming time for good or evil. We make our own destiny, and make it always in the present. The past is gone, the future is yet to come. The present only is ours, and, according to what we do in the present, will be the records of the past and its influence on the future. They are only wise who wisely regard their actions in the present.